Skiers cross country looks to have fun on the run | AspenTimes.com

Skiers cross country looks to have fun on the run

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Years ago, when he was just an assistant, Aspen cross country coach Chris Keleher got a piece of advice from a mentor that to this day has shaped his philosophy on training high school runners.

“He told me, ‘We probably could do a lot better if I coached them not to have fun and coached them to win races,'” said Keleher. “But that’s not the point. … First and foremost, it’s gotta be fun.”

Especially this year.

With an inexperienced boys team, and a girls team that will likely have two of its top runners unavailable for the state meet because they will be taking their ACTs, more than ever, the Skiers are running this fall for the sheer fun of it.

“I look at this as a sport where I want to see them come back in 30 years and tell me, ‘I still love to run. It doesn’t matter how fast I am, I’m just still out there to run,'” Keleher said. “That’s really what I’m going for. Yeah, it’s great to do well at races, but that’s not the most important thing.”

That doesn’t mean Aspen’s girls don’t expect to be very competitive this fall. The Skiers return seniors Lindsey Wilkinson and Brittany Marrs, who finished 61st and 84th, respectively, at last year’s 3A state meet in Colorado Springs.

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Junior Brianna Morse ” who was 59th at the same meet ” is also back. There are also three other juniors ” Kelsey Tofany, Keaton Doyle and Gracie Nichols ” who have been pushing the Skiers three state finishers in preseason practices. Also included in that group is freshman Erika Heaphey, who has done nothing but impress since joining the team.

With seven female runners capable of scoring points in any given race, Keleher is excited about the possibility of some strong team results.

“It’s huge to have the depth because they are pushing each other,” he said. “They’re helping each other out in practice, working on getting faster, but they’re also supporting each other and trying to beat each other at the same time. That carries into races.”

Marrs and Wilkinson said that their friendly rivalry is something that helps them through hard practices. Both agreed that competing against each other during the week should translate into some personal bests on Fridays and Saturdays this fall.

“We’re just really competitive with each other and we’re more of a team this year than just a group of individuals,” Wilkinson said. “Our team is really strong this year, that’s why we’re going for team scores, not individual times.”

Marrs said the prospect of losing a final chance to race at state because of the conflict with ACTs has made her and Wilkinson approach the season differently than in years past. Instead of focusing on the finish, both plan to try to enjoy the journey as much as possible. In the process, they hope to help their younger teammates achieve their goals.

“Even though we can’t go, it would be nice to qualify for state, then maybe get the other girls to a point to help them qualify,” Marrs said.

“Maybe we’ll even be pacers at regionals,” Wilkinson said. “That’s what we did for a nordic race once and it worked really well. We got our friend to qualify for states.”

Earning state berths could prove to be more difficult this year, after the Colorado High School Activities Association restructured its regional format. Smaller IA and 2A schools will now only compete amongst themselves, and 3A schools from the Western Slope like Aspen and Delta will compete against a larger pool of 3A teams.

Compared to last year, when Aspen and Basalt were among four 3A teams at their regional, there will now be 15 teams at this year’s 3A regional in Delta. With the larger field, there will be more team and individual state berths up for grabs.

“It’s going to be a wider range of competition,” Keleher said. “We’ll run against Bayfield, Buena Vista and some other schools we don’t see as often. It will be a good test.”

The same is true in regard to what Keleher faces with his boys team this fall. At Saturday’s season opener at Delta, the coach will run four freshmen because his only two upperclassmen ” senior Bryce Gordon and junior Jesse Hoffman ” won’t be eligible yet because they won’t have completed nine team practices.

Hoffman just returned from a ski camp in Chile while Gordon ” a mountain biker who won a state title in short track last weekend at Eldora ” will wrap up his competitive cycling season this weekend.

Even when both return, Keleher said the emphasis will be on fun, not results. Both upperclassmen don’t have much competitive running experience.

The coach did say he is excited about the opportunity to develop the freshmen foursome of Brett Gordon, Hayden Joy, Nathan Hanson and Patrick Severy. If all goes as planned, each could turn into an accomplished varsity runner in the coming years, Keleher said.

“They get some varsity experience right off the bat and it’s a definite blessing where I don’t have to worry about them scoring because I just want them to see what it’s like on the ragged edge of being a varsity runner without worrying about being a varsity runner,” Keleher said. “I really don’t care where they finish. It’s about keeping them for four years and just building on what they have here and just making it fun.”

npeterson@aspentimes.com

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