LAKEWOOD — When the husband-wife coaching tandem of Ben and Meggie Kirk took over Coal Ridge track in 2006, it was a bare-bones program at a new school on the western slope.
But the Kirks had a blueprint that morphed Coal Ridge into a perennial Class 3A power. The Titans girls won the program’s first title last year, and are in contention to repeat again at this weekend’s state meet at Jeffco Stadium.
“We’ve seen it grow each year from the first year, when there were 17 kids on the whole team,” head coach Ben Kirk said. “We went from just trying to qualify someone to state, to trying to qualify a team, to trying to place a team, to top five as a team, to winning a couple individual events.
“In 2013 and ’14 our boys were second two years in a row, so that was our first, ‘We’re there.’ Getting to see that progression has been so cool. It feels like we have really worked and built that, and obviously having athletes with God-given talent helps.”
Coal Ridge’s headliner is senior Peyton Garrison, a Montana State commit who won four state titles last year and is expected to add four more this year in the 100 meters, 200, 400 and one of the relays (either the 4×400 or the 4×800 medley, wherever the Kirks decide to put her for the finals). Garrison set the state record in the 400 during Thursday’s preliminaries with a time of 54.71 seconds.
Standing in the way of Garrison and the Titans’ repeat dreams is Liberty Common, the other top contender in 3A this year. The Fort Collins-based school is seeking its first program title, but Coal Ridge (located in New Castle, pop. ~5,000) has the numbers to spoil Liberty Common’s bid. The Titans qualified athletes in all but two events.
“They look about the opposite (of us) — they put a lot of their girls in the open events, and spread those points out that way, and they’re very strong across the board,” Kirk said. “They’re probably the frontrunner, we have a shot but we have to do a lot of things right and they have to mess up in a few places. But it should be them and us back-and-forth this weekend.”
Coal Ridge might not be in this position had the program not shifted its practice approach about four years ago. The Kirks made the decision to switch their training focus to a low-rep, high intensity approach that the coaches believe has helped their top sprinters take the team to a higher level.
“We went away from the traditional method of pounding the kids into the sand — the idea of work as much as you can, run as much as you can — and we went to a different style of training of as intensely as we can go, but only for a few reps,” Kirk explained.
The blueprint for Coal Ridge’s success came from a familiar face — Meggie Kirk’s dad, Kelly Cowan, who was the longtime coach at Hotchkiss and is now the head coach at North Fork. Cowan has won cross country and track titles, and coached Meggie in high school at Hotchkiss, where both of the Kirks graduated in 2001.
“I learned a lot from him growing up,” assistant head coach Meggie Kirk said. “We took his philosophy. We base all our runners off the 400, because you can go up or down. It helps with sprinting, helps with distance, We took that from him and I’ve learned everything from my dad. We still talk to him every week, we use all his knowledge and bounce ideas off each other.”
Coal Ridge likely needs to be on the podium, or on top of it, in all of the relay events in order to top Liberty Common. Senior Natalie Smythe, a Colorado Mesa commit, knows the Titans are going to have to perform well around Garrison to make that happen.
“We need contributions from our younger girls and they have to feel part of our whole team, and bought in,” Smythe said. “But bottom line, we need to get good points from our relays to win.”