Boys cross country: Niwot’s Zane Bergen named runner of the year

Junior’s first championship sets 4A state course record while leading Cougars to team title

Tim Hurst/Staff Photographer
Niwot High School junior runner Zane Bergen poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Niwot, Colo.

NIWOT – For two years as a young cross country runner at Niwot, Zane Bergen watched Cruz Culpepper win consecutive Class 4A state championships.

It was only a day or two after the University of Washington-bound Culpepper won his second title in 2019 that Niwot head coach Kelly Christensen approached Bergen with a message: the next 4A championship could be Bergen’s if he was willing to go for it. Bergen thought that endorsement was “a bunch of baloney” until about two or three weeks ago and at this year’s state meet, the junior proved his coach right when he left Norris Penrose Event Center with the individual title.

Following in Culpepper’s footsteps, Bergen claimed the third straight individual title for the Niwot boys and his winning time of 15 minutes, 29.5 seconds also broke the 4A course record that was previously held by, you guessed it, Culpepper. As a result, Bergen is now the third consecutive Niwot Cougar to be named boys cross country runner of the year.

“It’s kind of a shock,” Bergen said. “I would say that it hasn’t set in either. I know it’s been a week and we’re already back on the training grind but I guess those emotions haven’t landed yet. It’s weird when people come up to me and congratulate me. Hopefully, it sets in soon but I just raced for the team and I ended up winning.”

So did the team. So did both of Niwot’s teams, in fact. And it was the second year in a row that the Cougars swept the 4A boys and girls team titles at state. It was a familiar story for the Niwot cross country program but Bergen’s individual championship, however, faced more resistance than most.

In second place with just under 100 meters remaining in the 4A race, Bergen made a move to pass the leader, Green Mountain’s Grahm Tuohy-Gados. Trying to hold the lead, Gados veered into Bergen’s path to block his passing move. On Bergen’s second attempt to pass, the two got tangled up and Bergen fell. After the race, race officials disqualified Tuohy-Gados for impeding another runner and Bergen was named champion.

His first state title came under frustrating and unusual circumstances befitting the year in which it took place. But Bergen, who hadn’t raced against more than one or two of the top contenders through the season, said it wasn’t until the final weeks leading up to the state meet that he began to believe himself capable of even being in a position to win.

Tim Hurst/Staff Photographer
Niwot High School junior runner Zane Bergen poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Niwot, Colo.

Christensen, like he did just over a year ago now, knew that once the race started, Bergen’s competitive drive and ability to endure pain would make him a threat. Possibly even more than that, Christensen knew Bergen to be a tirelessly team-oriented athlete who would stop at nothing given the chance to lower the Cougars team score even if that meant simply going from two to one.

“With him, it’s his leadership,” Christensen said. “He cares more about the team rather than his own result and he’s willing to go to the well and suffer if that helps the team win. His individual championship was great but he’s always more worried about how he does as it relates to scoring points with the team. Once a kid reaches a certain level, they can easily go out and just do what they need to get better at workouts.

“But Zane is always all about doing whatever he can to get the team faster when we’re together, even when we encourage him to focus on himself. He’s just an overall team dude.”

Bergen’s time at the state championships was the ninth-fastest time recorded by a Colorado runner this fall.