Cross country team

Members of the Lake County High School girls cross country team pose for a photo after winning this year’s 2A state championship in October. Pictured from left is coach Amy Peters, Keira King, Susie Bullock, Ella Bullock, Clara Kirr, Violet Hill, Brynna Lenhard, Adele Horning, Indigo Olsen and Amara Olsen.

For the Lake County High School girls cross-county team, who won the 2A state championship on Oct. 30 as the first Lake County sports team to achieve the title in 25 years, the road to this year’s victory began well before the season did.

The team, which is comprised of mostly sophomores, began plotting this year’s championship run after finishing second in last year’s state tournament. The Panthers lost by just 10 points, or 15 seconds in overall running time, to Buena Vista High School (BVHS), who won the 2020 championship. Fueled by a tenacious drive that intensified during the off-season, the Panthers began this year with their eyes on the championship.

“We started talking about winning during track season, which we sometimes refer to as training for cross-country season,” said coach Amy Peters, who also coaches the Lake County High School track and field team in the spring with many of the same athletes that run cross-country. “You could tell that they were hungry after last year.”

But the Panthers again found themselves trailing BVHS during early meets this season. In September, despite posting two runners with top ten finishes in both the Lake County Cross-Country Invitational and the Mountaineer Cowboy Invitational in Gunnison, the Panthers continued to lag behind BVHS runners, until one of Buena Vista’s athletes suffered an injury.

In early October, Lake County’s team identified a new team to chase after, Colorado Springs Christian School (CSCS), who finished two runners in the top ten of the Courser Lightning Invitational. Lake County’s Adele Horning, a junior, and Keira King, a sophomore, also finished in the top ten of that meet. Meanwhile, the Panthers began running in packs, a tactic that defined much of the team’s success throughout the season.

During the Courser Lightning Invitational, Horning and King finished within 30 second of one another. Sophomore Violet Hill and freshman Ella Bullock crossed the finish line nearly in stride. Sophomores Clara Kirr and Brynna Lenhard finished with just seven seconds between them. And freshman Amara Olsen finished five seconds before freshman Susie Bullock.

According to Peters, the close finishing times are a reflection of the Panthers’ emphasis on pack running, which means closing course gaps among teammates to assure a higher overall score for a team. Peters added that the team began training on pack running at the beginning of the season, but some of the athletes said it was difficult to adapt to initially.

“At the beginning of the season, I was worried that one of my teammates was faster than me or that I wasn’t fast enough,” said King. “Then I think we realized that it wasn’t going to matter who was fastest as long as we were fast as a team. Like overcoming the individual mindset to be a team.”

With King’s sentiment reflected among her teammates, the Panthers  stormed toward the state championship tournament throughout late October. The team finished six runners in the top ten of the Frontier League Meet Championship in Broomfield, and then qualified for states at the Colorado 2A regional meet, where the Panthers finished first.

When the time finally came to travel to the state championship in late October, Hill said the team was anxious and excited. Wearing matching t-shirts with the lyrics of Matthew Wilder’s song “Break My Stride,” which includes the lines “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride. Nobody gonna slow me down,” the Panthers rolled into Colorado Springs. Despite a snake that fell from a tree during warm-up laps, the team’s anxiety and fear was morphing into a realization of last year’s goals.

Each Panther had a goal that day to beat another runner on CSCS’ roster. Later that day, not one of Lake County’s runners finished in the top ten, but the four scoring athletes completed the course within 50 seconds of one another, placing 11th, 12th, 17th and 18th. Only CSCS finished a second runner who placed ahead of Lake County’s fourth runner, Hill, who ran faster than every other team’s first or second runner.

In the end, Peters said her squad’s commitment to pack running and team mentality earned them this year’s championship. “It’s like the t-shirts,” said King, who added that each had part of Wilder’s song printed on the back. “You just see weird fragments of a song when we aren’t together. But together, we make something really beautiful.”

With this year’s state title secured and the entire team returning next year, Peters said Lake County may emerge as favorites next season, but that isn’t stopping them from making the same run they made this year. “Next season starts now,” said Hill.

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