Six of the seven state qualifiers for the Elizabeth girls cross country team share a lot in common. Mainly sets of genetics.
Caela and Ella Benkendorf, Alaina and Brenna Jones, and Ashten and Masen Loeks will all compete for the Cardinals on Saturday at the state meet which is held at the Norris Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs.
The three sets of sisters have helped Elizabeth's standards in the sport reach a high level. But it wasn't always like that.
When the Jones sisters, fraternal twins, Ella Benkendorf and Ashten Loeks all came in as freshman, the Cardinals weren't exactly known for cross country success. But those three helped change the standards the team would try to live up to.
"When the older four girls each came up, they set a whole new standard and a whole new level of expectation for our program," coach Alan Small said. "We hadn’t been on the state scene or anything like that. They helped bring in something that we had never had before. And so the younger siblings kind of came in expecting how it is. We’re supposed to be competing for things and we’re supposed to doing these kinds of things. The expectations were completely different for the younger ones that have come in.”
But those standards, along with the arrival of the younger Benkendorf and Loeks girls have made the team competitive and a fun environment for the entire team.
At regionals last week, all seven Elizabeth runners finished in the top 21 of the race. The seventh runner is the team's adopted sister Isa Tebrugg. Small quickly points to her as the glue that holds the team together.
Not that they don't along. Quite the contrary. Three sets of the girls might share the same last name, but from a personality standpoint, they couldn't be more different.
“They’re all unique," Small said. "Every single one of those girls is completely different from the other. It’s kind of funny. They are a hoot, but they are so unique. Each one of them.”
Heading into this week's meet, the girls are taking the chance not just to try and compete for a state title, but to relish in one of the last events where they'll compete together.
A lot can be said about sibling rivalry and how it plays into high school athletics, but these girls don't let it come into play.
There's not even a sense that they privately want to compete with each other in practice situations. They'd rather take the time to help each other get better so that the team can achieve more.
“They’re pretty chilled when it comes to all that," Small said. "Even though they’re all sisters, they have a great sense of family (with each other) throughout the year. Just like any team, we spend a lot of time together. We do a big summer camp where we all get together. They’re not hyper-competitive in practice with each other. They want to do well together.
Doing well this year would be a great way for their time together to end. With four of the girls graduating this year, it's on Masen Loeks and Caela Benkendorf to carry on the level of competition that they came into when they joined the team
"We lose five strong competitors," Small said. "Those younger two realize they want that trend to continue and maybe even try to find a way to elevate where we’ve been in the past.”
That's a concern for down the road. The main priority for each girl, regardless of class, is to try and get the best result this weekend.
The most important part from the team perspective is that they get to do it together. There was uncertainty early in the year if they would be able to do so, but as the state meet has come closer, the team has really started to come into its own.
"Caela had been hurt early this year and there was concern of whether she would be healthy enough to compete throughout the year," Small said. "They were really upset early on that they might not have the chance to share this moment together. If you look at the last few weeks, Masen has really just come on. What it’s done for all of them is that they trust each other and they know that on any given day one of the younger ones can have a great race or one of the older ones can come out and have a great race."
Come Saturday it won't matter who has the best race. It won't matter if one sister finishes faster than the other. The only thing that matters is that they'll compete together just as they always have.