With commitment, next crop of Colorado Springs-area cross country seniors ready to shine

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Photo - Air Academy track athlete Maria Mettler is the Gazette's Peak Performer of the Week. She was photographed in Garden of the Gods Monday, May 22, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Air Academy track athlete Maria Mettler is the Gazette's Peak Performer of the Week. She was photographed in Garden of the Gods Monday, May 22, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Maybe it's the urgency. Or perhaps when it matters the most, everything just comes together.

There's nothing quite like one's senior year in high school, a time when excitement and anticipation for the future is met with sadness for what will be left behind.

For student-athletes, it marks one last chance to perform. And in the case of cross country, one last chance to prove that all those extra miles were worth it.

Three months from now, on the grounds of the Norris-Penrose Event Center, a new batch of cross country medalists and champions will be feted.

If it's anything like last year, many of those champions and top-tier athletes will be seniors.

"Those kids who have reached that level, they've made the dedication and commitment that's not ordinary," said Alan Versaw, who has seen his share of individual and team champions in his 17 years as head coach at cross country juggernaut The Classical Academy. "To be at the top, talent is a big piece. But they have to have a will to keep working hard and keep doing the little things. Doing the little things is probably what snags most people. There's a lot of discipline and time involved in that."

Last year, Versaw witnessed another of his athletes on the grand stage when senior Tanner Norman not only won the 3A boys' state title, but did so in the fastest time, regardless of class.

Now, it's a matter of who's going to make that next step. TCA's Canaan Lamberth finished fourth as a junior.

"Sometimes, that leadership works naturally," Versaw said. "It's like a springboard. Sometimes, you fall on your face. Some people need that leadership to follow. Others take it on. It's hard to say."

At the 2015 state cross country meet, Air Academy's Katie Rainsberger started her senior season by finally claiming the 4A individual title after two runner-up finishes. Nearly two minutes later, a diminutive junior named Maria Mettler hit the finish line as the Kadets' third finisher, placing 11th.

Then it happened. Mettler blossomed as a senior and won the 4A crown in 2016 by turning in the second-best time by a girls' runner, second only to Grandview's Brie Oakley, the Gatorade national cross country runner of the year.

"In Maria's case, she came on strong her senior year," Kadets coach Chuck Schwartz said. "She just trained hard and she executed. Everyone on the team saw her come into her own. Now the next runners want to step up and fill the shoes."

Those shoes could be filled by Kadets sophomore Tatum Miller, who crossed the finish line first Friday at the season-opening Cheyenne Mountain Stampede at Bear Creek Park and Norris-Penrose Event Center. Or it could be teammates Mackenzie Moss and Paige Embaugh, juniors who finished close behind.

And in the boys' division, departed Air Academy senior Ethan Powell can't defend his 4A title, but the trophy can stay put with plenty of qualified candidates, seniors or otherwise.

But seniors won't rise to the top just because they're seniors.

"It's a commitment to training, to put in the work every day all summer, when it's not fun, hot and not glorious," Rampart coach Robert Young said. "Those are the miles that show up when the rubber hits the road, in the heart of the season. It's committing to a consistent, day-to-day approach is what really gets you there."

Rampart senior Connor McCabe once had a chance to learn from Ben Dingman, two years his senior.

McCabe finished sixth in 5A last year. As a freshman, he saw what it took for Dingman to place third in the state.

In three months, McCabe could become the first male runner from Colorado Springs in 15 years to claim a 5A individual title.

Will it come together, just like it did for Rainsberger, Mettler and Norman, just to name a few?

The proof is in the training, and a little luck along the way. A little leadership can't hurt, either.

"It was good to have Ben there to show Connor the way," Young said. "Connor did a nice job last year in taking over that role. He seems to be on a new level now."