• Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Niwot's Taylor James crosses the finish line at Saturday's Centaurus Invitational.

  • Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer

    Niwot senior Maggie Smith and the Cougars are looking to improve on their sixth-place finish at the state meet last year.



Running with the pack

Members of the Niwot girls cross country team this season include Maggie Smith, who led the team in 25th place at state last year, as well as state qualifiers Taylor James, Joelle McDonald, Annabelle Huddle, Mallory Finley, Samree Dishon and Coronado transfer Layla Roebke.

LAFAYETTE — Several of Niwot’s top female runners did not participate in Saturday’s Centaurus Invitational and instead embarked on a 10-mile run down Coal Creek Trail. Topics of conversation during a trek of this mileage include everything from the usual day-to-day chatter to the hopes and expectations of the season.

“Conversations range from ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ to ‘What are you going to run at state’ to how much homework we have,” Niwot senior Maggie Smith explained.

For the Cougars, it’s about having a focus on the present with a mindfulness for the future.

Third-year coach Kelly Christensen said he was happy with where his teams were at during the early-season meet a Waneka Lake Park over the weekend and believes his program can compete for a state title in late October as well as a spot at Nike Cross Nationals in December.

And while the Centaurus girls’ team celebrated a team win at the invite in Lafayette on Saturday, the leading ladies for the Cougars were finishing up a 10-mile run that strengthened more than just conditioning.

“The long run is the team bond,” Christensen said. “They’re not going slow, but they’re at a talking pace. And if you’re out there running 10 miles at this age with your team, like, it’s confidence, right? These girls want to go to battle with each other.”

All in time, though.

The Niwot girls — who went from eighth in Christensen’s first year in 2016 to sixth last year — are expected to make another leap this year. With six returning state qualifiers, a talented Colorado Springs transfer in Layla Roebke and several other vastly improved runners on roster, the Cougars are eager to prove what they can do.

Junior Samree Dishon, a rising star for Niwot, perhaps embodies that the most.

Dishon has yet to break 20 minutes on a 5K during a high school race. She’s been a solid runner over her first two years for the Cougars and last year she took 70th at state in 20 minutes and 25 seconds, good for fourth on her team. Since then, though, her stock has risen.

In the spring, Dishon crashed the state track meet and finished sixth in the 1,600 at 5:12. And last month she was named MileSplit’s breakout performer of the week after she took third in a two-miler at Mountain Vista, trailing 5A defending cross country champ Jenna Fitzsimmons by a mere seven seconds and 3A champ Quinn McConnell of Peak to Peak by 18 seconds.

The junior said her surge up the running ranks is thanks to a healthier body and a stronger mind. Dishon said she’s grown since working back from a stress reaction injury that toiled with her at times last year. Part of her recovery, she said, was grinding through mileage to get back in shape. Another chunk of it was realized through books. Dishon said she gained mental strength from stories about ultra-marathoners running barefoot and the practice of mental strength through meditation.

“It’s great just to keep up with your teammates during workouts,” she said. “To actually race without having this thing in your head telling you, like, you can’t go as fast because you don’t have the depth of working out every day — yeah, it’s nice.”

Dishon will likely get her first chance of the season to strike out her old personal 5K record of 20:23 as she and some of her teammates set out for the state’s fastest high school 5K course, Liberty Bell, this Saturday. But the focus will remain on the bigger picture.

Christensen has long downplayed the importance of victories and fast marks at in-season invitationals. While winning two track titles and one cross country championship at Palmer Ridge in his two years, the goal was always about getting better.

The discipline is staying patient.

“We’ll run fast when we’re supposed to run fast,” Christensen said.

It’s a balance until then.

Brent W. New:, tweet @brentwnew