Junior Cameron McConnell tried too hard to keep up with Cherry Creek’s Riley Stewart in the first Centennial League cross country race of the season, but she did a much better job of pacing herself in their next head-to-head race, finishing only 28 seconds behind the defending Class 5A state champion. McConnell’s Cougars have been gaining steam as the COVID-19-affected season has gone along as they get to compete weekly with Cherry Creek and Arapahoe, two of the state’s other elite teams. Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado

A third place finish in league could be disappointing for some girls cross country teams, but not for anybody in the Centennial League.

These days, that means you are among the best of the best in the whole state of Colorado.

The Centennial League produced the top three finishes at last season’s Class 5A state meet — Arapahoe first, Cherry Creek second and Cherokee Trail third — plus the individual state champion in Bruins’ star Riley Stewart A repeat could very well be in the offing, even in a 2020 season that looks tremendously different because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s tough when you have three of the top four teams in the state racing each other every week,” Cherokee Trail girls coach Josh Tate said after his team took third at the Arapahoe Warrior 5K at deKoevend Park.

“We could go to just about any other race and roll over it, but here we’re coming in third,” he added. “It’s a weird year, but we’re just going to race hard.”

That weird year has had many effects, including the fact that the three Centennial League powers see each other more often head-to-head.

Because of the reduction in the size of fields because of COVID-19 protocols, there are fewer big meets and invitationals and teams have composed their schedules almost completely of league competition.

The Centennial League teams don’t run their full lineups in every league event, but it has been often enough for them to gain a measuring stick against each other.

Cherokee Trail also finished third behind Cherry Creek and Arapahoe in the season-opening meet Aug. 22 at Mullen, but the gap between the Cougars and the top spot was 26 points. Cherokee Trail won the Bruins 5K, but neither the Bruins nor the Warriors had their top teams.

Cherokee Trail finished just 14 points out of first and eight out of second at the third league meet and Tate believes they’ve “closed the gap significantly” with possibly even more to come before the Centennial League Championship meet on the Cougars’ home course Sept. 24.

The frequent meetings have given Cherokee Trail junior standout Cameron McConnell — a two-time All-State first team finisher — a chance to get more of a feel for Stewart’s form this year.

Stewart finished 1 minute, 26 seconds, ahead of McConnell in the first league meet, but the gap dropped to 28 seconds at the Arapahoe meet.

“When I first raced her at Mullen, I tried to stay with her because I didn’t know what my fitness level was or what her fitness level was at the time,” McConnell said. “I think I went out a little too fast with her, so I changed my tactic a little bit and I think it worked. I maintained a pretty good distance the whole time and I tried to pick it up when I could.”

What is yet to be known is if the two will race against each other at the state meet.
Because the state meet will be the largest of the season in terms of numbers of runners allowed, wave starts will be required. A possibility exists that Cherokee Trail and Cherry Creek could end up in different waves, so it might come down strictly to time.

Tate is confident that his team could be a top three unit, even though it lost some of its longtime core to graduation in Tarikwa Woldemariam and Soonhee Han.

There is plenty of experience, however, as four of the seven runners that ran at state last season return in McConnell, sophomore McKenna Mazeski and seniors Campbell Faust and Megan Hodges. Add in Hodges’ twin sister Lauren and sophomore Alexis Pagel and the Cougars have the makings of an outstanding unit.

Cherry Creek also has the state’s pacesetter individually on the boys side in senior Parker Wolfe, who turned heads around the state with his time of 14:30.10 at the Heritage Distance Classic Sept. 12. That gave him a gap of nearly a minute over runner-up Ty Garrett of Valor Christian in the top two times in the state.

Grandview’s Peter Fox has a pair of wins thus far on the season — including a victory on the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds course where regionals will be run — and has a time that ranks him in the top 10 in 5A thus far, as does Cherokee Trail’s Caden Smith, who ran a personal best of 15:44 at the Bruins 5K that is currently seventh fastest in 5A.

Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports

2020 TOP 10 AURORA CROSS COUNTRY TIMES

Boys: Caden Smith (Cherokee Trail), 15 minutes, 44 seconds; Peter Fox (Grandview), 15:46; Jake Sheykhet (Grandview), 15:50; Kidus Begashaw (Lotus School for Excellence, 2A), 15:59.50; Sawyer Slauson (Eaglecrest), 16:47; Evan Armstrong (Cherokee Trail), 16:51; Logan McGowan (Cherokee Trail), 16:56; Gavyn Welsh (Cherokee Trail), 16:58; Noble Haskell (Smoky Hill), 16:58; Rueben Holness (Cherokee Trail), 17:19

Girls: Cameron McConnell (Cherokee Trail), 17 minutes, 41 seconds; McKenna Mazeski (Cherokee Trail), 18:35; Amelie Colsman (Regis Jesuit), 19:11; Erika Danzer (Regis Jesuit), 19:16.30; Alexis Pagel (Cherokee Trail), 19:24.50; Lauren Hodges (Cherokee Trail), 19:37; Campbell Faust (Cherokee Trail), 19:39; Aspen Hamilton (Regis Jesuit), 19:41.70; Megan Hodges (Cherokee Trail), 19:45; Alexandra Collins (Regis Jesuit), 19:48