LITTLETON — Mark Steinbeck enters his 12th season on Dakota Ridge’s boys cross country coaching staff and the Eagles are on pace for a banner season.
“I know our team aspirations are No. 1 in all of our minds,” said Steinbeck, who has been the head coach since 2012. “The intention right now at the state meet no matter what is to run for the team and try to get the team title.”
A year ago, Dakota Ridge finally ended rival Arvada West’s four-year run at winning the Class 5A Jeffco League boys cross country team title. Steinbeck believes claiming that conference title set the tone for what the Eagles did at the 2017 state cross country meet and what Dakota Ridge has ahead of them this season.
The Eagles placed fifth in the 5A cross country team race last October in Colorado Springs. Austin Vancil and Connor Ohlson finished third and 10th respectively.
Vancil returns for his senior year and Ohlson, who also placed in the top-10 in the 800 and 1,600 during the 5A state track meet last spring, is back for his junior season to lead the pack for the Eagles.
“We want to bring that title back to Dakota,” Vancil said referring to the Eagles winning its lone boys cross country team title in 2006. “It would mean a lot to do that. It’s a huge accomplishment to win state. We also want to try to get our team to qualify for Nike Nationals in Arizona.”
Besides Vancil and Ohlson returning, senior Riley Abrashoff along with juniors Ben Morrin, Ben Piegat and sophomore Jacob White are all back after running at state for the Eagles last season. Dakota Ridge only graduated Mark Testa from last year’s seven state qualifiers.
“We might look like the major favorite, but I’ve told these guys all year that if we don’t train if we don’t take care of business (other teams) will get us if we aren’t on our game,” Steinbeck said.
Evan Appel and Danny Carney are arguably the best two cross country runners to come out of Dakota Ridge. The two combined for six individual top-20 finishes at the 5A state meet from 2005 to 2010. Appel won back-to-back individual state titles in 2007 and 2008.
“It’s crazy to think that today we’ve got two boys (Vancil and Ohlson) just as good as Evan and Danny here at the same time,” Steinbeck said. “Austin and Connor are incredible.”
Vancil has gone from finishing 147th to 23rd to 3rd at the state meet the past three years. He placed 8th in the 1,600 and 4th in the 3,200 at the state track meet last spring.
“He (Vancil) is the smartest racer I’ve ever coached,” Steinbeck said. “Austin just does stuff that I’ve never had to coach him on racing wise.”
Ohlson doesn’t have the amount of miles as Vancil does under his belt, but the raw talent the junior has is evident. Ohlson admitted he was even surprised about what he accomplished his sophomore season.
“Freshman year you are looking at all the top guys and then all of the sudden you are running with some of those top guys,” Ohlson said. “It’s really humbling and really cool.”
What Ohlson has learned from Vancil has been critical too. The junior said he has learned to embrace the sport by his senior teammate.
Steinbeck is excited about what is in store for Ohlson over the next couple of years.
“Connor does things that tell me he is one of the most special boys to ever run in the state right now,”Steinbeck said. “He has the chance over the next two years to do some incredible stuff.”
While Vancil and Ohlson are two of the top 5A runners, they aren’t the favorite to win the individual title this season. Valor Christian junior Cole Sprout is coming off a remarkable sophomore campaign where he won the 4A individual cross country title and swept the 4A 1,600 and 3,200 titles at the 4A state track meet.
Valor is moving up to 5A this year so Sprout will likely be the rabbit that everyone will be chasing. Vancil doesn’t mind being the underdog when it comes to the individual title.
“It definitely helps not being the top guy going in. You don’t have all the pressure on you,” Vancil said. “On his (Sprout’s) best day he is unbeatable.”
Running head-to-head against Sprout this season is something Ohlson believes will be beneficial for him.
“It’s awesome to have somebody to chase,” Ohlson said of Sprout. “Having someone like him helps you improve more.”