Depth of girls team at Paonia could lead to 2A state crown

Track or tennis.

Other than playing soccer at nearby Delta, those are pretty much your only spring sports options if you’re a girl at Paonia High School. And when it comes to sports in Paonia, well ...

“Athletics are a big deal in Paonia,” said Ashley Van Vleet, a freshman standout on the Eagles’ track and field squad that’s been more than holding its own against big competition all season long.

And track, well, that’s the biggest thing going right now.

Paonia won the Class 2A Western Slope League title at Stocker Stadium on Saturday and will be well-represented at this week’s state meet in Lakewood, which kicks off Thursday.

With depth and balance unparalleled by any of head coach Brian Mitchem’s past teams, the Eagles are aiming high.

“We really want to win state,” proclaimed junior Taylor Polson, who qualified for state individually in the 300-meter hurdles and the 3,200. “And we think we have a pretty good shot at it, and that’s what we’ve been working on all year. We’re really focused on our relays, especially, because we have like three relays that could race for the No. 1 spot.”

The competition in Class 2A will be fierce. Lyons, Akron and Western Slope neighbor Hotchkiss are oft-mentioned contenders the Eagles will go up against at Jefferson County Stadium.

Mitchem, who has been with the program either as an assistant or head coach since 2004, would go to battle with his troops any day.

“With this girls team, there’s depth and a lot of experience,” he said. “They’re hard workers. All the kids, they work together. They build each other up and kind of compete against each other to some extent. Even in practice, they push each other.”

They’ve been pushing each other all spring.

Often finishing ahead of much larger schools, Paonia racked up four team titles before adding this past weekend’s league meet triumph to the list.

There’s a feeling of sisterhood that accompanies membership on the track and field team, senior Lindsay Russell said.

“There’s something about Paonia,” said Russell, who is home-schooled. “I will miss them. … They’re so supportive and accepting. Even though I’m home-schooled, they still brought me in, and it was so good.”

Said sophomore Morgan Hartigan: “We’re a small school, so we all do everything together. I mean, during volleyball not so much because we have so many kids that run great in cross country, but with basketball, it’s all kind of the same. We’re a family.”

Hartigan is a track and field anomaly in that she excels at the 300 hurdles and the shot put, to the point that she has a legitimate shot at placing in both at state. She downplays how rare it is for an athlete to pull off what she does, but the significance of her across-the-board contributions are not lost on her coaches or teammates.

“Shot put is usually for bigger-built girls, but if you’re strong, you can do it,” said Hartigan, who also runs on the 400 and 800 relay teams. “If you have a will, you can do it.”

“She’s probably the only one I know of in the state,” Mitchem said. “I’m sure kids do some of that … but to be at that elite level in both, that’s very rare.”

And she’s not the only Eagle who can do multiple things. It’s that cast of versatile and talented athletes that has Paonia, which placed fourth at state last year, aiming to take it up a notch or several in 2013.

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