A Community of Competition

  • Written by: Anna Gerber
  • Photos by: John David and Kerri McDermid

Photo: Mallory Christopher, junior at Longmont High School, warms up on the horizontal bar as a member of the Niwot Cougars gymnastics team.

St. Vrain is home to athletic teams that cross school boundaries and champion unity, excellence, and community for student-athletes.

Football, basketball, soccer, and volleyball are common offerings in high school athletic programs across the United States. But more non-traditional sports like gymnastics, lacrosse, field hockey, or skiing are often hard to come by. Per Colorado State Statute, if a student’s home school does not offer a sport, they have the opportunity to play at the closest school offering that sport, or at any school of their choosing.

Across the state of Colorado, students looking to compete in one of these specialized sports are forming combined teams composed of student-athletes from more than one, and often several, high schools. In St. Vrain, students who want to participate in boys or girls swimming might compete for Silver Creek High School or Longmont High School. The district’s only girls gymnastics team bears the Niwot High School name. And new this year, Erie High School is home to the district’s only boys lacrosse team.

The creation of combined athletic teams is typically student-driven. Though they might not be offered at the high school level, many athletes have been playing these sports their entire lives. Research is done to gauge the interest, support, and feasibility of creating a team, and a host school is chosen based on factors like facilities, community support, and Title IX capacity.

“We are never going to turn kids away. If there’s a demand, we will find the means to make it happen,” said Chase McBride, St. Vrain’s Executive Director of Athletics, Activities, and Fine Arts. “We want students to take advantage of the opportunity to learn life lessons through arts, activities, and athletics.”

St. Vrain’s newest combined team – lacrosse at Erie High – formed in time to compete during the spring 2019 season. In its first season, the Tigers’ lacrosse team brought together players from around the district, many of whom had competed with or against each other before. The result was a diverse and talented team that leveraged their differences to exceed expectations.

“The lacrosse community is a tight-knit group. It was definitely an advantage to us in the season because we had so much knowledge from so many different sources and coaching styles from teams all across Colorado,” said Sterling Gardner, a junior at Silver Creek High School who played on the Erie team this spring. “I had been watching most of the players on the team play since I was young and many of them I had played with before.”

The Tigers made it to the playoffs, ultimately losing in the semifinals to Golden High School, which went on to win the 4A state title. Players and parents credit Coach Nick Mandia with creating a culture of competition, but also of inclusion.

“The key was the culture that was developed over the year. It was so inclusive I never felt like I was from a different school – I was just part of the team,” Sterling shared. “Culture in any sport is extremely important, especially on a new team with people from all over who have learned different ways. It is the key to creating a team not just a group of individual players.”

Sterling’s father, Todd, also credits the culture and the trust put in the players to rise to the challenges they faced as a new team.

“Creating a lacrosse culture with excellent coaching, mentoring, and support from the district is the key to running a successful program,” said Todd. “St. Vrain and Erie High School found the right formula.”

“Winning is our goal, but it’s not our purpose.”

Another combined team that has seen recent success is St. Vrain’s only girls gymnastics team. The 4A team at Niwot High School features 18 athletes from five high schools around the district. The Cougars won their sixth state girls gymnastics title last fall after finishing as runners-up in the years before. Before that, they won state titles in 1991, 1994, 2000, 2001, and 2015.

In her five years as head coach of the team, Marisa Purcell has worked hard to unify her athletes and help them build a team mentality.

“Gymnastics in general is an individual sport until you get to high school. When you come to high school, you win based on your team score,” said Purcell. “Not only do we have girls from different schools, but we have girls who are in an individual sport now competing together as a team. I encourage them to think about the team perspective as well as the individual perspective.”

From day one of each season, Purcell encourages her athletes to put forth the effort to learn about each other and bond, recognizing the importance of their camaraderie in being successful as a team as they compete together.

“Their role is bigger than someone who just does a sport at their home school. We represent Niwot, our home schools, and all of St. Vrain Valley Schools,” Purcell says. “I let them know that it doesn’t matter what gym they come from, because now we are Niwot.”

As with any sport, competing for a combined team like Erie lacrosse or Niwot gymnastics takes hard work and dedication. Purcell gives credit not only to dedicated athletes, but to their families and the community that supports the team.

McBride takes pride in the success of the district’s combined teams both on and off the field, but also in the ability for athletes to have access to their sport of choice.

“We do everything we can to provide all students with many choices to be involved and to compete,” he says. “A guiding principle of ours has always been: winning is our goal, but it’s not our purpose.

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