Fort Collins High School has a cross country program as rich in tradition as any in Colorado.
The Lambkins have claimed numerous team titles in cross country and have had a seemingly endless stream of distance runners win state crowns in cross country and track. Many athletes have gone on to compete collegiately, several at the Division I level.
Lauren Gregory, the defending Class 5A state champion in cross country entering her sophomore year, doesn't take running at one of the better high school girls cross country programs in America for granted.
"You just feel blessed that you have those opportunities in your hometown," said Gregory, also the 3,200-meter state champion in track. "I live ten minutes away from the best high school program I can possibly put myself into in Colorado. It was just a great experience in continuing the legacy and tradition that Fort Collins High School has held throughout the past."
Gregory burst onto the scene as a freshman, placing second at the Arapahoe Warrior Invitational and second at the Cherry Creek Invitational behind two of the best in the country, Air Academy's Katie Rainsberger and Cherry Creek's Jordyn Colter.
After finishing 54 seconds behind Colter at the Cherry Creek Invite, Gregory had a breakout performance at her home course two weeks later, the John Martin Invite, as the precocious freshman put a scare into Colter only three seconds back as Colter nipped her 17:56 to 17:59 for 5k.
Gregory never looked back, soundly beating Rainsberger by 34 seconds to win the Brooks/TCA Titan Thunder Invitational, handling a strong Front Range Championship field in a personal best of 17:35, and winning her regional championship in a smooth effort.
Then Gregory took advantage of an off-day at the state championships by Colter and crushed an exceptional 5A girls field by 22 seconds over Boulder's Erin McLaughlin, 18:36 to 18:58.
"Winning state as a freshman, I forgot I was even a freshman," Gregory said. "You just don't even think about that. You're just another racer I guess, but everyone else saw it as something else. I just saw it as I was the same as the other runners."
Gregory added icing to the cake as she helped lead the Lambkins to a team title at the Nike Southwest Regionals with a sixth-place finish.
Then, at the Nike National Championships, Gregory finished seventh in arguably the most touted high school girls cross country race in American history with the likes of Niwot's Elise Cranny, Alexa Efraimson, and Sarah Baxter. Fort Collins finished in sixth place, one spot behind rival and three-time defending 5A state champion Monarch.
Despite a remarkable freshman season, Gregory, who comes across as a humble, team-first competitor, feels she has unfinished business.
"I want our team to get to Nike again," Gregory said, "because that was an incredible experience and I definitely want to win state this year, because getting second last year was kind of heartbreaking. We happily got second because that's still amazing, but winning would be incredible for sure."
The Fort Collins girls have finished second behind Monarch three consecutive years at the state championships. They hope to claim their first team crown since 2010.
The 5A girls cross country season promises to be another spectacular one with the likes of Gregory and senior Colter, the state champion her freshman year, battling for individual supremacy, and Monarch, Fort Collins, and Cherry Creek expected to fight for the team crown.
Class 5A girls cross country
Defending individual champion: Lauren Gregory, Fort Collins
Defending team champion: Monarch
Returning All-State athletes: Gregory; Maya Browning, Fairview
Regular season begins: August 21
Postseason: Regionals Completed by October 18
Championships: October 25 at Norris-Penrose Event Center, Colorado Springs