Despite the residency that Highlands Ranch-based schools in Class 5A appear to hold atop the state cross country rankings, a few still managed to make history this year.
Both Rock Canyon and ThunderRidge high schools finished higher than they ever have before, with the Jaguars winning their first state championship after a total score of 96, and the Grizzlies posting a score of 219, which earned them sixth place.
But the schools have historically looked up to Mountain Vista, who is often the favorite to win it all each year. For Rock Canyon, finally besting Vista was a milestone to remember.
“I’m extremely proud of the boys. They’re a very dedicated group,” said Rock Canyon coach Dan Davies. “This all starts in the first week of June. We run twice a day, a few days a week, and they just were all bought in. They made the sacrifices they needed to.”
Davies was named the 2023 Coach of the Year in Class 5A.
Last year, the Jaguars left one box unchecked, Davies said, which would become a catalyst for a revenge tour in 2023. The team won their league, won regionals, but fell short at state after a less-than-stellar performance that resulted in a fifth-place finish.
In 2022, Rock Canyon finished with a score of 189, two points shy of fourth-place Mountain Vista.
“That was their motivation: we’re going to check the last box this year,” Davies said. “Another confidence-booster was we went out to Woodbridge in Irvine, California for that meet because it has some of the best teams in the country. We placed seventh out there and beat some nationally-ranked teams … we just knew it was going to pay off because of their hard work.”
The rivalry between Mountain Vista and Rock Canyon helps spur the region’s competition. Other schools like ThunderRidge are beginning to bridge the gap between some of the titans in the area, like Vista, Rock Canyon and Valor Christian.
“That was really sweet,” Davis said of beating Mountain Vista. “(Mountain Vista coach) Jonathan Dalby and I are good friends. We go way back. And we’ve gotten the best of them once in a while in league and regional, but it’s been a while at state since we’ve beaten them.”
But how deep do rivalries burn in Highlands Ranch?
“It is a rivalry,” Davies said, who has been at Rock Canyon for 21 years. “We push each other, and we know that the state championship is going to through teams like Mountain Vista and Valor who are right down the road, too. And ThunderRidge had a really good team this year. They ran well, and we all know each other, the coaches. It definitely motivates our kids.”
Dalby said he can see every school in Highlands Ranch if he climbs to the top of Highlands Point Trail.
He’s been the coach at Mountain Vista since 2007, and said he and other area coaches share information and pointers between one another. That fiery blend of competition and collaboration likely helped shift the balance of power from schools in Boulder and Fort Collins to the Highlands Ranch area over the years.
They are rivals. But they’re also all good friends who want each other to succeed, he said.
“You just kind of learn from each other and share from each other. And the kids see it,” Dalby said. “When your next-door neighbor is having success, it’s probably pretty natural for teenage kids to want the same type of success. Our coaches are friends, but our kids hang out a lot, too. And success becomes contagious.”
Brian Kelly has been the head cross country coach at ThunderRidge for five years, but he’s been coaching track and cross country at the school for closer to 16 years.
Last season, the Grizzlies finished 11th at state with a score of 266, but made their huge jump to sixth place at 219 this season.
“What we’ve been able to do the last few years is just kind of get an amazing group of kids and an amazing community just able to buy in and commit to putting in the hard work in the summertime,” Kelly said. “Just doing all those little, tiny things they need to do and buying into being a ThunderRidge athlete.”
While Kelly would like to take credit for changing the culture at ThunderRidge, he said he’s really just been blessed with stellar student athletes.
“There’s just an abundance of talent in the area. There’s just a lot,” Kelly said. “I mean I’d like to say I have an impact, but realistically you’re really fortunate to have talented kids that come into the building, and your job is to not screw it up. If you see that you have the talent, then what you do is you try to foster it, and give kids every chance they can to be successful.”
For years, Mountain Vista ran the show in the area. It’s continued improvement from schools like ThunderRidge that helps tip the scales a bit.
But Kelly explained that in Highlands Ranch, students have the flexibility to go to the school of their choosing, which helps.
“I think what we’re starting to see now is there’s more of a balance,” Kelly said. “You’re getting a ton of kids that start to see that you can go to any of these schools, and honestly have a good experience and really do well. And I think the competition naturally breeds like, ‘Hey, we want to keep up with them,’ and I think that’s really beneficial.”
But it starts with doing the work in the summer, both Kelly and Davies said. That means running multiple times a day, every day, when no one is watching or cares how hard you’re working.
When you put that work in, the success comes and you’re not surprised.
“When you have so many kids that know they can run with each other, then races, league championships, all those become more important and really matter. As long as they’re willing to step up and take on the challenge,” Kelly said.
For now, Dalby will let Davies have this one. And he knows Valor isn’t going anywhere and ThunderRidge is coming.
“Of course I want to see our kids do well at the state meet, but I was just really happy for Dan and his coaching staff,” Dalby said. “We’ve had some close battles over the years at the state meet and it was our turn to take second to him. I know how hard he works for those kids and it was definitely well-deserved for him.”
Looking at the all-state selections for 2023, several runners from Highlands Ranch were honored:
- Mountain Vista junior Benjamin Anderson
- ThunderRidge senior Owen Casselman
- Valor Christian senior Dan Eike
- Rock Canyon junior Owen Whitney
- Valor Christian junior Kaeden Dendorfer
- Rock Canyon senior Brady Hill
- Mountain Vista freshman Benjamin Adams
- Valor Christian junior Judah Crooks
- Rock Canyon junior Jack D’Souza
- Rock Canyon senior Jackson West
For the full list of the boys cross country 5A state results, visit this link.