The 2020 cross country season was an unprecedented one for Buena Vista High School – not only because of the looming omnipresence of COVID-19, not only because the Lady Demons finished the season undefeated, but because, for the first time in school history, the girls took home the Class 2A state championship.
“I think we’ve seen our challenges this season with the different set-up of meets to take care of all the COVID regulations and whatnot, but it’s been really impressive for them to have an undefeated season and then to go on to the state meet and win as well,” said head coach Julia Fuller.
Assistant coach Jared Oubre said, “It took a while to set in, but it’s just a really joyful time.”
The morning that the team headed down to Colorado Springs Saturday for the state meet, receiving a send-off down Main Street, the team was relaxed.
“Even when we got to the course, they just seemed confident and knew what they needed to get done,” Fuller said.
Fuller and Oubre said that the girls’ greatest asset throughout the season was one another.
Mallory Salazar, the team’s top runner last year and finished third at state this year, was challenged throughout the season by a strong newcomer, sophomore Zaila Smith. Sisters Alexis Santopietro and Kadence Kelso pushed one another as well. Molly McMurry had to overcome injuries early in the season.
“It’s such a mental game at the end,” Oubre said. “You work so hard to train their bodies, but then at the same time you’re just hoping it builds confidence so that they can believe in themselves.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions on how many runners could be at the starting line at once, runners set off in waves, and the winners were measured by times rather than finishing order.
This made it a little less obvious who was really ahead of whom as compared to a typical race, but the Lady Demons who relied on one another for strength and motivation throughout the season all started in the same wave.
“It was really fun for them that they all got to have one more race all together,” Fuller said. “They were just really grateful for that opportunity. They’re racing against the top runners in the state, really for a season we weren’t guaranteed. That we didn’t know until about 2 weeks before the season whether it was going to happen or not.”
The sense that each race the team attended could be the last of a season cut suddenly short allowed the team to focus on the run ahead of them, which Oubre credits in part for the girls’ undefeated run.
“I told Julia, hey, this weekend, we have a race, and let’s treat it like our last race,” Oubre said. “I know the kids like to race, so worrying about whether there would be a state championship or whether our school would go on lockdown, I didn’t think that was worthy of our time. We’re training for that, but this very race we have in front of us is worthy of our attention.
“It was kind of like one step at a time.”
That, and runners who dedicated their summers to train for the upcoming season “in a religious sense,” he said.
“That was our goal – when you get to the start line and those nerves start to kick in and you really feel the energy of state, they should just take some deep breaths and focus and remember those things they’re grateful for,” Fuller said.
That isn’t to say the Demons didn’t have their eyes on the prize. Last year at state, the team finished second. And Santopietro, a senior and the team captain, didn’t let her teammates forget.
“At the expectations and goals meeting back in August, Alexis said ‘We got second last year. Only one other thing we can do now,’” Oubre recalled. “She put it out there in front of the whole team.”
Fuller said that “by the end of that race we really got to see all of them give everything they had to that race.”
Because of the staggered start times, the team didn’t immediately know who had won the race.
“We finished and regrouped and gathered as a team and reflected on, again, the fact that we had the opportunity to be there,” Fuller said. “They called off each team ranking, and we knew we would be up there in at least the top three, so when we didn’t hear our name for third and then when Lake County got called for second it really kind of sank in.
“The girls, they were ecstatic. They were just in it together, more than anything else. Not one of them had it made for the team. They knew it took all of them to get there.”
The boys team also finished well, coming into the state meet ranked ninth and finishing seventh.
“It was really fun to see them make that improvement. They all had really great races, really strong races,” Fuller said.
Senior Rosston Sherlock had a podium finish, and senior Isaac Hutchings came in second for the team, 27th overall, and passed all but one runner in the wave that started ahead of his.
“The boys, too, just did a great job of pushing each other this season,” Fuller said. “Rosston’s been runnng a little solo this season, but Jack Helmke and Isaac have been pushing each other all season. Jack’s been really trying to gain on Isaac and finish up there with him.”
Sam Starr and Chris Hutchings were placed in the same wave and were able to push each other in the state race as well.
“They put together a solid race, and this is the second year in a row that they’ve done that at state,” Oubre said.
He added that the last 2 weeks of the season “was completely them. There’s nothing we were going to do training-wise that was necessarily going to improve them, their time. But how were they going to think about and visualize their race to maintain that competitive edge was them.”
“This is what a lot of teams work at, to build programs that can do something like this,” he said. “And even then it’s not always a given that you’ll be able to put it together come that one day … to do it last Saturday was for me a very special experience.”