NIWOT — Back in the fall of 2019, freshman Freddie Ambrose and his buddies were running on one of the trails near town.
“It was right after we won state and this guy drives by and yells, ‘There goes our state champions!’ ” Ambrose recalled. “We get that kind of support all the time. It’s kind of amazing.”
Junior Mia Prok has felt it too.
“It’s so much fun because we’ll be on our runs and people cheer for us when we go by because they know all about us,” she said.
There’s plenty worth knowing.
The Cougar girls are huge favorites to win their fifth consecutive Class 4A state title on Saturday at the Norris Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs. The boys are favored to win their third title in four years after losing to Cheyenne Mountain last year.
Late Thursday afternoon, on a crisp fall day with snow frosting the Flatirons nine miles to the west, close to 50 Niwot runners hit the trail for a run through the woods near the high school. Only the varsity runners will compete Saturday, but the size and camaraderie of the group swelled coach Kelly Christensen’s heart.
“They’re all still around and still want to run and contribute to this,” said Christensen, a former Western State runner who’s in his seventh year at Niwot. “We have the kids who’ll compete Saturday at state, and we have the kids who run 30-minute 5Ks that are still showing up. We’ve built something special here.”
Niwot has become a cross-country mecca under Christensen, who has earned the respect and affection of his runners, as well as athletic director Joe Brown, who said, “Kelly pours his heart and soul into every kid, regardless of ability. I don’t know if there is a better coach in any sport than Kelly Christensen.”
Christensen, however, also knows there other factors into why Niwot has become a prep powerhouse. The proximity to the legendary running community in nearby Boulder is a big part of it.
For example, freshman Addison Ritzenhein is the daughter of former Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who is a University of Colorado graduate and a former U.S. record-holder in the 5 kilometers. Freshman Rocco Culpepper is the son of Alan Culpepper, also a CU graduate and a two-time Olympian.
Senior Carlos Kipkorirr, originally from Kenya, is the son of Edna Kiplagat, the legendary distance runner who won the 2017 Boston Marathon at age 37.
“The thing is, some of our kids have parents who are Olympians and marathon champions,” Christensen said. “There is tradition here, but these kids have put in the time and work. This is about what they are doing. The parents want the focus on their kids.”
Last year, after winning the state title, Niwot’s girls traveled to Huntsville, Ala., and won the national cross country championship. This year’s team is even better.
“This feels super special and doing what we did last year is a big confidence booster,” said senior Madison Shults, who’s headed to Stanford on a scholarship. “Our team is better than last year, and deeper. We have gotten stronger and a lot of the girls have stepped up and really become leaders.”
However, a few girls have been battling strep throat and sinus infections this past week, and Christensen said he’s unsure who will recover and put in a peak performance on Saturday.
“It might be surprising to hear that we have seven girls who could win a state title,” the coach said. “It’s a special group and when they are running well on the same day they are all within 20 seconds of each other. We’ll see who’s healthy.”
The magnificent seven: Prok and her sister, Anna, a freshman; Shults; sophomore Bella Nelson, who has the best kick in the group; senior Lex Bullen; Olivia Alessandrini; and Ritzenhien.
“It’s been a different runner every week for us and we’ve kind of taken turns,” said Bullen, who was injured last fall but enters Saturday’s race as healthy as she’s been in a long time. “Any one of us going to state has a strong possibility of putting ourselves out there and possibly even winning the individual title.”
The course on Saturday is hilly and over 6,000 feet in elevation, so it’s going to be a major test.
“A lot of us are at about the same fitness range, so the mental game is going to be a big part of it,” Bullen said.
Three Niwot boys — Culpepper, Ambrose and Kipkoritr — could pick up the torch from Zane Bergen, who won in both 2020 and ’21 and had the state’s fastest high school 5K time last year, posting a time of 14 minutes, 42.2 seconds, which was also 10th-best in the nation.
“Frederick is a dark horse,” Christensen said. “He had a great summer but he suffered a concussion during homecoming when he tried to do a backflip on the dance floor. But he’s looked great for the last 10 days, so I’m excited to see how he does.
“And, Rocco, the 14-year-old freshman, well, he’s just a manic and I mean that in the best way. Nothing he does surprises me.”
Senior Jeremy Gillett believes the Cougars have a solid chance to win both the boys’ and girls’ team titles.
“That would be great,” he said. “Niwot being such a small town, the community is closely connected to the school. The people here are proud of us. That feels really good.”
State cross country meet
Where: Norris Penrose Events Center, Colorado Springs
Schedule: 3A Girls, 9 a.m.; 5A Boys, 9:40 a.m.; 3A Boys, 10:20 a.m.; 5A Girls, 11 a.m.; Unified, 11:40 a.m.; 2A Boys, 12:20 p.m.; 4A Girls, 1 p.m.; 2A Girls, 1:40 p.m.; 4A Boys, 2:20 p.m.