Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it much better.
Racing on their home course, the Dolores girls cross-country team erased the pain of the recent near-misses, putting together a gritty performance to earn the final team qualifying spot for the 2A state championships at the 2A Region 4 meet.
In most other sports, the final result – usually conveyed via scoreboard – provides immediate feedback for the competition’s outcome. In cross country, the final tally hinges on completion of all competitors, meaning the wait between crossing the finish line and finding out one’s state championship fate can take some time to settle.
For the Bears, that half-hour felt interminable.
When Bears head coach Angie Lowe learned of the fate – a fifth-place finish and an at-large appearance to the championships at the Norris Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs the following weekend – the Bears mob celebration could officially commence.
Five juniors battled the heat and hills of the Boggy Draw trails, but the end result served as testament to the hundreds of miles that had been building up to the final 3.1 that propelled the Bears to one of the program’s loftiest achievements.
The Bears scored 115 points, narrowly edging a tightly-packed field for the last spot in the field, and had the second half of the race to thank for their surge up the leaderboard. When the final scores came through, the Bears had edged sixth place Cedaredge by just 13 points.
Everlee Heaton climbed into the top 15, up several spots from her midrace placement, to land what would have been an individual qualification berth, had the rest of her team not made the field as well. The first-year cross-country runner gained separation from the other girls pursuing the final individual qualification spots in the last mile, crossing the line in 15th place with a time of 23:24 to open the scoring for the Bears.
“We had so much fun, especially to get to do this on our own course,” said Heaton, “I can’t believe that we’re all going to get to go to state.”
Heaton enjoyed success in the distance races in track and field last spring, and was excited to continue her improvement in her cross-country debut this fall.
“They (my teammates) really inspired me to run this year,” added Heaton, “and I’ve looked to them and said ‘I want to work just as hard and be just as disciplined as them.’ It’s been such a bonding experience.”
Elia Lowe closely tailed Heaton for the early stages of the race, continued to do what she has done so well for the Bears all season – produce a steady racing effort in the upper tier of the racing field. The junior navigated the single track effectively, finishing in the top-third with a 27th-place run of 24:57.
“It’s amazing, I’m so excited,” said Elia Lowe, “we’re such good friends, and have enjoyed doing everything together, team runs … and its made us even closer.”
Having knowledge of the course definitely played to into the Bears’ hands, “We knew where we could speed up on the single track and the power line road, and what to expect for how we needed to finish,” added Lowe.
As the Bears third runner, Keira LaRose, kept battling while managing through some of the stretches on the Boggy Draw course without someone sitting on her shoulder. LaRose kept within contact of Lowe, then held her pace to take 34th in 25:53.
With the field really congesting in the fight for fifth, fourth runner Maya Lowe held off the late charges of several girls finishing in a flurry, crossing the line in 27:23 to claim 53rd place and cap the Bear scoring.
Coralea Wright took 76th in 32:38 to round out the Bear performances, as the quintet of Class of 2025 runners will get their first taste of the biggest meet of the season.
Dolores had competed in the early season Cheyenne Mountain Stampede on the state meet course to set a clear expectation that they wanted to make a return trip at the end of October.
“We prepared for this by running in the pre-state meet,” added Elia Lowe, “and we knew that getting there was one of our goals all season.”
“I’m so proud of both our girls and boys teams,” said the Bears head coach Angie Lowe. “They’ve worked so hard – and after missing out the last couple of years, for the girls to get to go to state is just so awesome.”
Lake County took the top team spot, placing six runners in the top 12 to ease to the regional crown. Panther senior Keira King led the way with the individual title in a time of 21:36. Caprock Academy, Telluride, and Soroco joined the Bears as team qualifiers in the girls race.
Much like the girls race, the Dolores boys were left to wait for the final dust to settle before finding their fate in a tooth-and-nail battle for the final state qualification spots.
Unfortunately for a young Bears squad, DHS fell just one place short of earning a team berth to the state championships.
Sophomore Aaron Nielson, however, will get to carry the banner for the boys program, earning the Bears their first individual state qualifier since 2018, thanks to his 13th-place finish (20:02) in the 2A Region 4 boys race.
Nielson was outside of the qualifying top 15 when the teams hit the halfway point of the race, but the sophomore surged up several places in the uphill stretches of the final mile to earn himself a place on the starting line in Colorado Springs on Oct. 28.
“This means a lot, I feel really accomplished. This wasn’t my expectation at the beginning of the year,” said Nielson of his breakout campaign, “but my teammates have really helped me. I remember having a good race in Monticello – and that’s how I knew that we had taken the next big step.”
“Those boys push each other at practice every day,” said Lowe, “and Aaron’s been able to keep improving, not only because he’s a hard worker and driven, but also because he has a team that pushes him.”
A youthful Bears team followed Nielson across the line with freshman Owen Lowe taking 20th (20:37), while freshman Corvin Smith (34th, 21:33) and sophomore Josh Benally (44th, 22:02) capped the scoring for Lowe’s squad.
First-year Orin Samulski (48th, 22:18), senior Dillion Bringle (73rd, 24:14), and freshman Grant Wright (75th, 24:34) rounded out the Dolores effort, as the Bears took sixth place as a team (105 points), just a dozen points behind the last qualifier – Colorado Rocky Mountain School.
While the final result proved bittersweet, the Bears can take solace in the fact that they competed with six underclassmen, and will surely look to be a force in the small school cross country scene for the years ahead.
Crested Butte took the team title in the boys race, while Rangely’s James Talbot cruised to a sizable victory for the regional individual title. Caprock Academy, Olathe, and Ignacio joined Crested Butte and CRMS as the team qualifiers.
“We’ve had a really strong connection, been supportive of one another,” said Nielson of the bond between the boys and girls programs, “and I can’t wait for next week.”
The state championships, hosted on the west side of Colorado Springs at the Norris Penrose Event Center, will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28 with the 2A girls championship kicking off the festivities, with the 2A boys race to follow at 10:20 a.m.