LITTLETON — Not so long ago, the Salida girls cross country team finished an emotionally charged state meet as the Class 3A runner-up.
While a second place showing was extremely solid, in some ways the result was a bitter one after a uniform incident — non-identical singlets — resulted in only five girls, not seven, toeing the line. The defending champion Spartans were inched out for the state crown in 2014 by Alamosa, 91-95.
"When something like that happens, it's just tough," Salida coach Ken Wilcox said. "Fortunately for a lot of our girls, they were back for another year. We have an opportunity to take something that wasn't so positive and make it a real positive. I've always thought great challenges present great opportunities."
On Friday afternoon at DeKoevend Park in Littleton, site of the traditionally competitive Arapahoe Warrior Invite, Salida took advantage of such an opportunity. Senior Taylor Stack won the boys race, as he and his teammates placed fourth in a 30-team field, and the Salida girls finished as runner-up to 5A favorites Cherry Creek.
In an invite comprised of almost all 4A and 5A schools, the Spartans made a statement in their season debut.
"One of the beautiful things about cross country is you get the opportunity to run against some of the bigger dogs," Wilcox said. "We are a school of about 300 and obviously there's a lot of schools here that are much bigger than that. It's just fun for us. It's low pressure."
On a true cross country course with a water crossing and a few gently rolling hills, Stack ran away from big-school stars — Alec Hornecker of Golden, Steven Goldy of Arapahoe, and Luc Hagen of Air Academy — in winning with a time of 16 minutes, 13 seconds. Hornecker was next in 16:20, then Goldy (16:25) and Hagen (16:49).
It was an impressive start to an eye-opening afternoon for the Spartans as all six of Stack's teammates broke 19 minutes. A year ago on the same course, only three managed sub-19 performances for the eventual sixth place team in 3A.
"In the time we've been coming to Arapahoe, I have to feel that's easily the highest our guys have placed without a doubt," Wilcox said excitedly.
Seth Minor, Russell Orris, Kaden Sites, and Morgan Fitzgerald filled out the scoring five for a Salida team that had 215 points, fourth place behind only 5A schools Cherry Creek (132), Rock Canyon (128), and Arapahoe (64), the champions at their home course. The Spartan boys are ranked No. 6 in 3A by Milesplit.
Then, Taryn Ceglowski (6th place), Phoebe Powell, Bari Beasley, Sydney Fesenmeyer, and Olivia Lowe racked up 152 points in beating 5A No. 8 Pine Creek (157) and 4A No. 6 Palmer Ridge (171).
The girls, ranked No. 1 in 3A, were only defeated by Creek (64). The Bruins rode first- and third-place finishes by Devon Peterson and Lillian Markusch to a crown.
In a meet with most big schools racing their full lineups, but some, notably Mountain Vista boys and girls and Palmer Ridge boys, holding out top runners, Salida seized an opportunity to display the strength of not only their program, but small school distance running overall.
"It's always fun to come to a bigger meet like this and be one of the only 3A schools," Stack said.
"It's always our goal to kind of mix things up a little bit and make some noise for smaller schools."
"I think as a small school sometimes it's easy to have small dreams," Wilcox added. "We don't want to have small dreams. We want to shoot a little higher than that."