Boys track and field: Niwot’s Culpepper named athlete of the year

Cougars junior won 800, 1,600 at state for team champion Niwot

NIWOT, CO – JUNE 11:Niwot High School’s Cruz Culpepper poses for a portrait on June 11, 2019. (Photo by Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

NIWOT – At last year’s Colorado track and field state championships, Cruz Culpepper got tangled up with another runner and fell roughly 450 meters into the Class 4A 800-meter finals.

He was supposed to help comprise an exciting finish and likely leave Jefferson County Stadium with a state title, not fall and finish dead last.

It didn’t take long for Culpepper to get over the cruel turn of events in 2018 but as the 2019 state track meet drew near, the disappointing memory of last year’s 800-meter debacle seemed to creep back into his thoughts more often. With them, that familiar feeling of pressure to perform – and now to redeem – grew stronger. Culpepper was determined to make good on what he set out to do as a sophomore last spring.

Culpepper most certainly did that.

At the 2019 state championships, the Niwot junior returned to win the 800-meter title in 1 minute, 52.93 seconds to record the fastest prep time in Colorado this season, and then won the 1,600 in 4:16.69 for his second state title. On top of his redemptive individual titles, Culpepper helped Niwot win its first-ever boys track and field team championship. That was more than enough for him to be named the 2019 boys track and field athlete of the year.

“It felt like there was a lot of pressure and expectations on me to redeem myself from last year,” Culpepper said. “I wanted to win both those events at state and it felt good to focus in on it all season long and then come through under that pressure.”

As big as his state meet was, Culpepper’s summer is still in full swing.

Niwot's Cruz Culpepper celebrates as he ...
Lewis Geyer/Staff Photographer
Niwot’s Cruz Culpepper celebrates as he crosses the finish line in first place in the 800 meter run during the state track meet May 17, 2019 at Jeffco Stadium.

After an outstanding performance at the Music City Distance Carnival on June 2, Valor Christian’s Cole Sprout (4:04.19) and Culpepper (4:04.82) are currently ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the country in the mile. Culpepper will run the mile at the Brooks PR Invite in Seattle, Wash., this weekend while Sprout will run the two-mile.

As for the Cougars winning the team title, they did so in dramatic fashion with Jack Kenkel diving across the finish line to help Niwot secure the 1,600-meter relay title, and thus their first boys state championship, in the final event of the meet. It was an exciting moment for a program that has been building momentum over the past two years since 2017, when the Cougars scored zero points at state.

“That was super cool,” Culpepper said. “Our hurdlers came through and my teammate Jack Kenkel was doing really well, everyone was doing well. We weren’t necessarily expected to win and to have it happen that way in the four-by-four with Kenkel’s dive and everything was awesome.”

With the Niwot girls also winning a team title, there were plenty of highlights for Cougars head coach Maurice Henriques this spring. Seeing Culpepper get the monkey off his back from last year was definitely one of them.

“It was good for him to come back,” Henriques said. “You saw when he finished the race what a burden had been lifted off his shoulders. Cruz is one of the most talented kids I’ve seen in my 20 years of coaching. He’s legit and he’s so smooth in doing it that he has a calmness about him that is rare in a high school kid. He brings confidence to our races and that trickles down.

“He just delivers.”