Before you can knock down a row, the first domino has to fall.

For the Paonia girls track and field team, the tipping point was the 1,600 relay final at the 2013 state meet.

The Eagles trailed Akron by nine points in the team standings heading into the last event. Akron didn’t advance their group out of preliminaries, which meant if Paonia won the 1,600 relay the program’s first team championship would follow.

“We had to win it,” coach Brian Mitchem said. “We didn’t tell our girls where we were at (in points). I don’t know if they knew or not what was on the line. They ran the race of their lives and set a new state record and we won the title.”

Lindsay Russell, Ashley Van Vleet, Chelsy Reed, and Taylor Polson earned the necessary ten points needed to sneak past Akron 87-86 in the final tally. They established a Class 2A state record in the 1,600 relay that still stands with a time of 3 minutes, 58.16 seconds.

Van Vleet, Reed and Polson also teamed with Taylor Plymale to blow past the classification record in the 3,200 relay on the first day of competition, running 9:33.81.

“We started the meet with a state record and finished with a state record,” Mitchem noted.

Now, coming off four consecutive 2A team titles, Paonia is a dynasty. The Eagles are just the fourth program to win four in a row in any classification.

The Classical Academy topped 3A five times in succession from 2006-2010 and Mullen won 4A seven times in a row from 1997-2003. Limon is the only 2A program before Paonia to have achieved such a feat, conquering four in a row from 2004-2007.

So yes, Paonia is in rare company. And of course it takes special athletes to thrive to that degree.

2016 grad Ashley Van Vleet was a member of a championship squad every year of her career. A two-time state winner in the high jump, Ashley will soon reunite on the track at Idaho State with her younger sister, Brianna.

Before that, Brianna has unfinished business to attend. Although an outstanding class of seniors graduated, and the most complete team thus far in Mitchem’s eyes was the 2016 group, the cupboard is anything but bare.

“We’re swimming with athletes,” the younger of the superstar sister tandem said. “We want to strive for five.”

Nothing in life is guaranteed and Mitchem knows the competitiveness of the state. Lyons and Soroco would love nothing more than to claim the top perch, and each has the firepower to be in the mix.

(Courtesy of Paonia HS)

At the start of the spring, Paonia has a team worthy of being deemed the favorite again though. Van Vleet won the long jump and set a new standard in 2A with a mark of 18 feet, nine and a half inches last year. She’s back for more and will be joined by fellow multi-sport stars from volleyball (24-3 record in fall) and basketball (22-0 and No. 2 seed in 2A Great 8) in Sophia Anderson, Emily Pieper, McKenna Hartigan, McKenna Palmer, Randi Rapke, and Poppy Lightfoot.

Scott Rienks, the girls basketball coach, spends his time in the spring coaching the throwers and sprinters of the track program. Brent McRae led Paonia football to back-to-back 1A state titles in 2013 and 2014 and coaches the jumpers on the track team.

The Eagles have been potent in athletics in recent years—Paonia claimed three consecutive 2A titles in wrestling from 2012-14—and it’s easy to see why. Strong coaches and competitors are in place each season.

It’s been a collective effort in the spring, exemplified best by Paonia’s dominance in the relay events.

“We’ve just had some great kids come through the high school the last several years,” Mitchem said. “We’ve been a very welcome recipient of great athletic talent. Last year we scored 47 out of 50 points in the relays.”

Piling up 139 total points with placers in nearly every event (Wray was runner-up with 76), the Eagles really flew in the relays while triumphing in four of the five (800, 1,600, 3,200, and 800 medley relays). They placed third in the 400 relay and have finished first in at least two relays every season of their championship streak.

Now another group of seniors could finish their careers in the red and black never knowing the taste of defeat at state.

“That’s obviously a big deal to me, because track is my sport and I love it with a passion,” Van Vleet said. “Being able to look at my sister and say, ‘Hey, I won four too.’ I know we can do it.”

Track and field preview

Important dates

  • Regular season begins: March 9
  • State meet: May 18-20 at Jefferson County Stadium in Lakewood

Defending champions in boys track:

  • 5A: Pomona
  • 4A: Mountain View
  • 3A: Lutheran
  • 2A: Cedaredge
  • 1A: Heritage Christian

Returning all-state competitors in boys track:

  • 5A: Malic Bonner, Fountain-Fort Carson, 4x400, Jr.; Max Borghi, Pomona, 4x100, Jr.; Sergio Cedano, Fountain-Fort Carson, 4x400, Sr.; William Dixon, Monarch, 4x800, Jr.; Adam Eckhardt, Pomona, 4x100, Sr.; Jason Farrell, Fountain-Fort Carson, 4x200 and 4x400, Jr.; Jeremy Gonzales, Pomona, 4x100, Sr.; Isaac Green, Monarch, 4x800, Sr.; Angel Heredia, Hinkley, 300 hurdles, Jr.; Zach Litoff, Monarch, 4x800, Sr.; Jalen Lyon, Fountain-Fort Carson, 4x200, Jr.; Miles Matulik, Pomona, 4x100, Sr.; Darrien Wells, Hinkley, 400 meters, Sr.; Donovan Williams, Fountain-Fort Carson, 4x200, Sr.
  • 4A: Aaron McCoy, Canon City, 300 hurdles, Sr.; Ian Meek, Montrose, 1600 and 3200 meters, Sr.; Brandon Pappas, Palmer Ridge, 4x400, Sr.; Harry Steinberg, Durango, 4x800, Sr.
  • 3A: Sunday Abarca, Aspen, 400 meters, Sr.; Luke Arkell, Lutheran, 4x100 and 4x200, Jr.; Bryce Coop, Manitou Springs, 4x400, Sr.; Jacob Dack, Lutheran, Shot Put, Sr.; Adam Dawson, Lutheran, Discus, Sr.; Isaiah Delacerda, Alamosa, 4x800, Sr.; Jasper Germain, Roaring Fork, High Jump, Jr.; Chad Jackson, Alamosa, 4x800, So.; Jared Keul, Manitou Springs, 800 meters, 4x400, Sr.; Oscar Martinez, Alamosa, 4x800, Sr.; Caleb Palmer, Alamosa, 4x800, Sr.; Luke Rodholm, Manitou Springs, 4x400, Sr.; Victor Zimmerman, Sterling, Pole Vault, Sr.; Conner Stahla, Resurrection Christian, 4x100 and 4x400, Sr.; Michael Stevenson, Resurrection Christian, 4x400, Sr.; Jack Taylor, Resurrection Christian, 4x100, Jr.
  • 2A: Jaylen Hayes, Ellicott, 4x200, Sr.; Simon Kearns, Mancos, 4x800, Jr.; Ben Kelley, Soroco, 800 meters, Jr.; Jake McKie, Mancos, 4x800, Jr.; Chad Mikelson, Sedgwick County, Long Jump and Triple Jump, Sr.; Chiante Stewart, Ellicott, 4x200, Jr.
  • 1A: Chris Athey, Lake City Community, 4x800, Sr.; Ian Beckett, McClave, High Jump, Jr.; Isaac Borchers, Lake City Community, 4x800, Jr.; Shiloh Bremer, Cheraw, 4x100, Sr.; Beau Dukes, Springfield, 4x200, So.; Bowman Ellis, Springfield, 4x200, Sr.; Blayden Fletcher, North Park, 110 hurdles, Jr.; Tate Goble, Otis, Pole Vault, Jr.; Cameron Klann, Flager, 100 meters and Long Jump, Sr.; Riley Moore, Lake City Community, 4x800, Jr.; Taylor Motschall, Heritage Christian, 4x400, Sr.; Brendon Trujillo, Cheraw, 4x100, Sr.; Fred Turner, Eads, 300 hurdles, Sr.

Defending champions in girls track:

  • 5A: Fort Collins
  • 4A: Classical Academy (now in 3A)
  • 3A: Eaton
  • 2A: Paonia
  • 1A: Heritage Christian

Returning all-state competitors in girls track:

  • 5A: Aumni Ashby, Cherokee Trail, 4x200, Jr.; Hannah Carlson, Arapahoe, 800 medley, Jr.; Gina Coleman, Fountain-Fort Carson, Discus, Sr.; Jamie Johnson, Cherry Creek, 4x800, So.; Audra Koopman, Fort Collins, Long Jump, Sr.; Sydnee Larkin, Cherokee Trail, Triple Jump and 4x100, Jr.; Allison Marizza, Arapahoe, 4x400, Sr.; Jordan McCurdy, Cherry Creek, 4x800, Jr.; Gabriella McDonald, Rocky Mountain, Shot Put, Jr.; Arria Minor, Denver East, 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters, So.; Brie Oakley, Grandview, 1600 meters and 3200 meters, Sr.; Jaiden Paris, Cherokee Trail, 4x100 and 4x200, Jr.; Devon Peterson, Cherry Creek, 4x800, Sr.; Emily Sloan, Rock Canyon, 100 hurdles and 300 hurdles, Jr.; Taylor Watson, Cherokee Trail, 4x100 and 4x200, Jr.
  • 4A: Anna Hall, Valor Christian, High Jump, So.; Rylee Anderson, Silver Creek, High Jump, Jr.; Tess Boade, Valor Christian, 4x100 and 4x200, Sr.; Alexis Buckhaults, Canon City, 100 hurdles, Sr.; Lauren Gale, Discovery Canyon, 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 medley, Jr.; Destiny Grimes, Valor Christian, 4x100, So.; Jenny Hall, Discovery Canyon, 800 medley, Sr.; Lilliana Hamilton, Air Academy, 4x800, Jr.; Ayannah Lang, Discovery Canyon, 800 medley, Jr.; Lily Lockhart, Delta, Shot Put, Sr.; Bianca Lopez, Valor Christian, 4x200, Jr.; Maria Mettler, Air Academy, 4x800, Sr.; Lianna Ubungen, Discovery Canyon, 800 medley, Jr.
  • 3A: Maya Evans, Lutheran, Long Jump, Jr.; Lannan Abbott, Colorado Springs Christian, 4x400, Jr.; Morgan Barone, Lutheran, High Jump, Sr.; Kylie Chavez, Sterling, Long Jump and Triple Jump, Sr.; Dana Kotz, Coal Ridge, 4x200, Sr.; Chelsey Lockey, Eaton, 800 medley, Jr.; Santana Martinez, Coal Ridge, 4x200, Jr.; Quinn McConnell, Peak to Peak, 800 meters and 4x800, So.; Quinn Pinnt, Moffat County, 4x100, So.; Julia Ridgway, Colorado Springs Christian, 4x400, Sr.; Courtney Sabatino, Eaton, 800 medley, Jr.; Emma Samuelson, Moffat County, 4x100, Sr.; Anna Shults, Peak to Peak, 1600 meters and 4x800, So.; Tarynn Sieg, Eaton, Shot Put and Discus, Sr.; Erica Thompson, Colorado Springs Christian, 4x400, Sr.; Ivy Todd, Estes Park, Pole Vault, Sr.; Lily Tomasula-Martin, Estes Park, 3200 meters, Sr.; Sarah Yocum, Faith Christian, 100 hurdles and 300 hurdles, Sr.
  • 2A: Ellie Berry, Burlington, Discus, Sr.; Shayna Dale, Cedaredge, 4x100, Sr.; Melanie Deering, Kiowa, 400 meters, Sr.; Soleil Gaylord, Telluride, 1600 meters and 3200 meters, Jr.; Megan Godsey, Wray, Triple Jump, Sr.; Brooke Hillman, Paonia, 4x800, Jr.; Isabelle Himmel, Highland, 200 meters, Sr.; Katie Hyke, Cedaredge, Shot Put, Jr.; Poppy Lightfoot, Paonia, 4x800, So.; Emily Pieper, Paonia, 4x200 and 800 medley, Sr.; Randi Rapke, Paonia, 4x400 and 4x800, Jr.; Kassidy Rapke, Paonia, 800 medley, Jr.; Brianna Van Vleet, Paonia, 4x200, 4x400, Long Jump, Sr.; Shira Woods, Paonia, 4x200, 4x400, 800 medley, Jr.; Kayla Zink, Caliche, 100 meters, Sr.
  • 1A: Bree-Ann Carwin, Baca County, 800 meters, Sr.; Bailey Chintala, Fleming, 4x400, Jr.; Morgan Cockroft, Fleming, 4x400, Jr.; Tori Goode, Kim, 4x100 and 800 medley, So.; Miranda Hall, Lake City Community, 4x800, Jr.; Kylee Holden, Granada, 300 hurdles, Sr.; Shaylee Johnson, Fleming, 4x400, Sr.; Tatelyn Lasley, Springfield, 400 meters and 4x200, Sr.; Jacee Lawrence, Lake City Community, 4x800, So.; Jenna Lengfelder, Fleming, 4x400, So.; Megan Levine, Lake City Community, 4x800, Sr.; Zariah Mason, Kim, 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100, 800 medley, Jr.; Audrey Rau, Springfield, 4x200, So.; Jayci Westphal, Springfield, 4x200, Jr.; Ashley Yergert, Kim, 4x100 and 800 medley, Jr.