LAKEWOOD — In preparation for this year’s state track meet, St. Mary’s junior Jackson Neppl poured over hours of video of past races, studying Colorado’s top distance runners and seeing what he could add to his own approach.
But there was one runner he kept coming back to: Cherry Creek girls star Riley Stewart.
“I watched all her races, all her interviews,” said Neppl, who won the Class 2A 800- and 1,600-meter races. “Her race technique is impeccable. I’ve noticed that sometimes when she’s racing against big competition, if she’s not out in front right away — she likes to sit and kick. She doesn’t go too hard early so she can maintain that 500, 400, 300-meter kick. She’s as confident as she is talented. I try to model myself after that, her fluid stride, her arm movement, everything.”
Neppl was one of Stewart’s many admirers this weekend at Jeffco Stadium, where the Bruins senior wrapped up a high school career some argue makes her the greatest female distance runner in Colorado prep history.
The Stanford-bound Stewart won the 1,600 and 3,200 meters and anchored the Bruins’ title-winning 4×800 relay. That gives Stewart seven state track titles in her career after winning four as a junior. Toss in three 5A cross-country championships, and that’s 10 rings total.
“Colorado’s had such unbelievable distance runners as a whole, male and female, so for her to be the best to ever come from this state — that’s really saying a lot,” said Grandview coach John Reyes, whose boys won their second straight team title Sunday. “I don’t think there’s an argument. She is the best. Look at the times.”
Stewart holds state records in the 1,600 (4:44.13 last year in the Stutler Twilight Invitational to break the mark held by Air Academy’s Katie Rainsberger) and 3,200 (10:06.23 this year at the same meet to break the mark held by Grandview’s Brie Oakley).
In Reyes’ eyes, Stewart has supplanted both runners in Colorado prep lore. And now, Stewart has the potential to take down national high school records, too.
Next month, Stewart will compete in the mile at the Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle, then head to Oregon a few days later to run the two-mile at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Eugene.
“I would guess she can run faster than what Brie did at sea level when Brie broke the national record (in the two-mile at Brooks in 2017),” Reyes said. “Stewart is capable of running a high school national record, no question.”
Stewart’s performance paved the way for Cherry Creek winning its second girls team title and first since 2013. Kinsey Christianson also won multiple titles (400 and 800), as the Iowa State commit beat Stewart in the latter race. Christianson was also the opening runner on Cherry Creek’s 4×400 relay that took first.
“(Christianson) is in the sprinting group and I’m in the distance group at practice, so the event was like the battle of the middle ground for us,” Stewart said. “We never really raced each other this season (in the 800), but to lose to her, I’m happy and happy for her. In the last 200 (meters), she just beat me. I’m proud of my teammate.”
In that vein, Stewart has stayed humble throughout her rise to running prominence. Cherry Creek coach Delisa McDavid describes Stewart as “very genuine and not at all about herself, and funny and quirky and just kind of refreshing.”
“Her head could’ve exploded (with cockiness) but it didn’t,” added Kel McDavid, one of the Bruins’ star sprinters and an Oklahoma commit. “It’s been so fun to see her have the success that she’s had and every single day continue to be her genuine self… she pushes our team every day. Even the boys on our team, she’s making other people better — she beats about half the boys.”
While Cherokee Trail and Fort Collins tested the Bruins, ultimately Cherry Creek’s depth gave them the trophy. The Bruins won despite not winning the marquee sprinting events, which were claimed by Centennial League foes. Cherokee Trail junior Symone Adams won the 100 in 12.18 and her Cougars finished runner-up, while Eaglecrest’s Haley Esser won the 200 in 24.73.
Stewart paced the Bruins with 38 individual points, just a couple years after finally deciding to give up soccer and volleyball to focus on running. A promising athlete on the club circuit in both those sports, Stewart played midfield for Colorado Real and middle blocker for 303 Volleyball.
But she made the right, and easy choice, about midway through high school.
“It took until like my sophomore year to figure out that running was what I definitely was going to do,” Stewart said. “I’ve always had the passion for running — ever since I was around eight, I knew it was going to be something special in my life. Once I made that switch and really started focusing on this sport, then I started getting those state titles and I got hungry for more. It’s led me here.”
Where’s here? It’s more than history. It’s the culmination of a legacy that even those who lose to her look up to. Arapahoe junior Emily Lamontagne, who finished runner-up to Stewart in the 1,600 and 3,200, spoke for her peers after coming up short in the finals of the former race on Sunday.
“She’s the runner that everyone wants to be,” Lamontagne said.
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