Cross-country at crossroads | AspenTimes.com

Cross-country at crossroads

Jon MaletzAspen, CO Colorado

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Predicting last year’s cross-country outcomes amounted to no less than a sure thing. One could always depend on Aspen’s Noah Hoffman. The senior, one of the school’s and region’s most prolific athletes, produced one fine final season. He won five times, including the regional and state individual titles – becoming the first Skiers runner to capture the state crown since Christy Severy in 2002. Only one opponent, Rocky Ford’s Victor Montoya, beat him all season. This preseason, Hoffman’s absence is as conspicuous as his past dominance.”The kids were talking on the first day of practice, saying it was weird he’s not here,” Aspen head coach Chris Keleher said. “Life after Noah is the same as life after any of the Severys.”The boys team is now shrouded in uncertainty. Hoffman now resides in Sun Valley, Idaho, and is training for nordic skiing. Gone, too, is a experienced supporting cast – seniors Barton Tofany, Nate Marrs and Jacob O’Connor – that helped clinch a regional title. While much of the girls team remains intact, giving Aspen reason to believe it can challenge at regionals, junior Scott Lacy is the lone returning varsity boys competitor.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” coach Chris Keleher admitted Tuesday. “Four spots are wide open, and a lot may go to a lot of second-year runners who have never raced at the varsity level.”It’s tough to graduate four or five, but it gives others a chance to be a part of the team. They always seem to rise to the occasion.” The Skiers girls return two junior state qualifiers, Lindsey Wilkinson and Brittany Marrs, and perhaps their best runner, Natalie Obermeyer. While Wilkinson and Marrs finished 11th and 17th, respectively, at last year’s regionals, Obermeyer battled a cold and struggled to a 21st-place finish – the top 20 qualified for state. Had she been at full strength, Keleher said Obermeyer would’ve challenged for a spot at the top of the leaderboard.”I had pegged her to finish sixth or seventh, but that means nothing now,” Keleher said. “I think she wants a bit of redemption.”The girls will look to fill the void left by state qualifier Laura Hatanaka. Sheer numbers should help; 29 runners, of which nearly two-thirds are girls, have come out this preseason. Keleher believes his girls have a shot at qualifying for state, but it will not be easy. Only three teams qualify for regionals, and three teams in 3A’s Region 5 – Crested Butte, Gunnison and Hotchkiss – are currently ranked in the top 10 in the Rocky Mountain News’ preseason coaches’ poll.

“We return four or five runners, and we have a good solid base to build on,” Keleher said.A host of new faces will surround Lacy. Among those expected to compete for the five varsity spots are Jesse Hoffman (no relation to Noah), Whit Fuller, J.D. Redmond and former football player Robert Codd, who is rehabbing a serious knee injury.”I really don’t have expectations as far as the team goes, so anything will be good,” Lacy said. “This is a whole new group without a lot of experience. Really all we can do is hope for the best.”Lacy, who finished seventh at last season’s regionals, will be looking to improve on a 64th-place result at last year’s state meet in Colorado Springs; he overcame an early fall to finish in 18 minutes, 32 seconds.In this his second year, Lacy is expecting big things individually. Instead of shying away from the scrutiny and comparisons, Lacy is aiming to follow in friend and former teammate Hoffman’s footsteps.

“I miss him, but this is a good opportunity for me to use what he taught,” Lacy said. “He was a good example of how an athlete trains. And, more than anything, he led us well. I expect myself to do what Noah did. “I talked to him, and he told me he’s expecting a lot out of me, too. It’s my turn to see what I’ve learned.”Lacy and the Skiers get that chance Saturday when they compete in the Delta Invitational.”We won’t know what we’re dealing with until that first race,” Keleher said. “I’m as eager and anxious to see how things turn out as they are.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com