If Basalt High School junior Sierra Bower plans to compete for the state cross country championship — and it seems she does — she needed to put in a lot of extra work over the offseason. The standout distance runner claims she did just that, and backed it up by winning the season-opening Longhorn Invitational on Saturday at Crown Mountain Park.
“I did some good, hard work over the summer and I’m happy with it,” Bower said. “I wasn’t really going for time today, just placement, just because it’s such an early meet in the season. I wasn’t too focused on that, but I’m happy with that time for sure.”
Bower won Saturday’s race with a time of 19 minutes, 21.6 seconds, holding off Glenwood Springs freshman Sophia Connerton-Nevin (19:38.6), who forced Bower to keep the pedal down over the final stretch. Those two finished a good distance ahead of Aspen junior Kylie Kenny, who took third in 21:06.8.
It was Bower’s first win on her home course. She was about four minutes slower when she competed in the race as a freshman and had to sit out the Longhorn Invite as a sophomore because of injury. She’s been plenty strong since, having won the regional hosted by Aspen last fall before finishing 24th at the state meet in 20:12. Bower also finished second in the 2-mile race at the state track meet in the spring.
“I liked what I saw. Sierra’s got a compliment of kids with her and we are hoping we can ride this for a while,” BHS coach Ron Lund said of Saturday’s meet. “She had a solid summer and I think she is excited for what’s ahead. We’ve got some meets where hopefully she will butt heads with some of the upper runners in the state.”
Bower likely will need to shred even more time to have a chance at the state championship this fall. Four runners finished in less than 19 minutes in the girls’ 3A race at state a year ago, with Kaylee Thompson of The Classical Academy winning in 18:19.2. The good news is that all four of those girls were seniors, which could open the door for someone like Bower to step in.
If confidence is a factor, Bower looks to be in good shape.
“I’m definitely feeling very confident going into the season just with all this training that I’ve been doing,” she said. “I’m super thankful for my team. We are looking very strong this year, which I’m super excited about. It’s so motivating to watch everyone work so hard in practice. It’s been super nice having an awesome team this year.”
The Basalt girls finished second as a team on Saturday with 45 points, falling only a point short of Aspen. Glenwood Springs was third with 70 points, followed by Gunnison (110) and Soroco (153).
Missing a couple of veteran runners, the Longhorns relied on their youth on Saturday. Three other BHS runners finished in the top 12 of the girls’ race, and all three are freshmen: Katelyn Maley was sixth (21:19.1), Sarah Levy was seventh (21:34.5) and Ava Lane was 12th (22:05.3).
ASPEN GIRLS SHOW OFF YOUTH, DEPTH IN WIN
While Aspen may lack the singular star power that is Bower, the girls do have plenty of options. Also missing many key runners because of experiential education or college visits, the Skiers still landed five in the top 18 of Saturday’s race.
“It just speaks to our depth,” Kenny said. “We have a team where we all lift each other up and try hard from first to last to everywhere in between, so I think the fact that we are running strong as a team right from the beginning is good.”
Behind Kenny’s third-place finish was junior Kendall Clark, who was fourth in 21:14.7. AHS freshman Elsie Weiss was ninth (21:49.8) in her high school debut, while junior Eva McDonough was 10th (21:57.2) and freshman Michaela Kenny was 18th (23:23).
“Without a full squad it’s really encouraging to be able to win with a lot of the freshman really stepping up and picking up a lot of slack for the girls who weren’t here,” AHS coach Chris Keleher said. “They know they are going to be good and they know it’s all going to come from their own hard work. Kind of untapped potential, I hope.”
Kylie Kenny is Aspen’s top returning runner based off last year’s state results, where she finished 17th in 3A with a time of 19:55.2, ahead of even Bower. Clark was 33rd at state in 20:30.4. The Skiers finished seventh at state in 2018 and return essentially their entire team in 2019, not to mention the influx of talented freshmen.
THE BOYS TRY TO REBUILD
Neither Aspen nor Basalt have much to offer in terms of boys’ team results early this season. In fact, neither had enough to even post a team score. Both found something to grasp onto in terms of individuals results, however, with Basalt senior Tucker Bruce finish fourth in 18:53.3. BHS junior Noah Allen was 14th in 19:47.9.
“Tucker is focused this year,” Lund said. “He really wants to go to state and I think he’s running the way he needs to, or at least heading in the ride direction to get that top-15 individual spot. So that’s the focus for him. And Noah could be right there too. He had a great summer and he’s only a junior.”
Aspen’s top finisher on the boys’ side was sophomore Brenon Reed, who was 15th in 20:13.5. AHS freshman Eske Roennau was 18th in 20:52.8.
The Aspen boys finished 17th at state in 2018, but lost their top three runners because of graduation. BHS did not qualify any boys to state last fall.
“Certainly not as strong or as deep as we were last year. But we’ve got some good potential,” Keleher said of the AHS boys, who also did not have a full squad competing Saturday. “What do they say? We don’t rebuild, we reload? Well, we are rebuilding. Which is fine. They are all fun to run with and hopefully we scan shock some people like we did last year.”
Gunnison junior Alex Baca won Saturday’s Longhorn Invite in 16:52.4. Baca, who finished 14th at state last fall, won by nearly two minutes over Coal Ridge freshman Tyler Parker (18:43.7). Soroco junior Alex Colby was third in 18:47.9.
Glenwood Springs, led by a fifth-place finish by sophomore Quinn MacPherson (18:58.6), won the boys’ team title with 59 points. Gunnison was second with 62 points and Rifle was third with 80 points.
THEY’LL BE BACK
While Basalt’s home meet has been the season opener in recent years, this one meant a bit more, as it will also be where regionals are held on Oct. 19. Some of the schools that competed Saturday, such as Glenwood Springs and Soroco, compete in a different classification. Others, like Aspen, Coal Ridge and Rifle, will return to the Crown Mountain Park course vying for a spot at the state meet.
“It’s good because we get a bit of the home town advantage because it’s down here. But it’s also a little nerve-wracking because it’s flat and we are used to running the hills a lot,” Kylie Kenny said of the course. “It’s different to push through the flat than to go up and down.”
The start and finish lines were a bit different on Saturday than in the past because that area will need to accommodate more runners at regionals and they were using the meet as a bit of a trial before the bigger show in October. Otherwise,
Lund said the course was about 90% the same as it had been.
“I’m super excited to have it on that course. I’m obviously very familiar with it,” Bower said of regionals. “That makes it so much more exciting and people from my school can come and watch if they want to. It’s super nice having it here.”
Aspen will host its annual home race on Oct. 5, two weeks before regionals. The state cross country meet is Oct. 19 in Colorado Springs.