When Niwot senior distance runner Jenna McCaffrey started weighing her post-high school options last year, Arizona was the furthest place from her mind.
“I was never really looking into going to school in Arizona, because it’s so hot there,” she said. Instead, the four-year member of both the cross country and track teams at Niwot looked into options closer to home, including Colorado School of Mines and CSU.
Then a former running coach suggested she take a look at Northern Arizona University (NAU), located about 140 miles north of Phoenix in Flagstaff. With a new coach at the helm, NAU was hoping to replicate the recent success of its men’s program on the women’s side, and was in need of recruits.
“I’d never even heard of the school before,” McCaffrey admitted, but she decided to do some research anyway. “I started looking into the program, and their boys won the D1 [NCAA Division I] nationals in cross country this past fall, which is really encouraging. And they have a new coach, Coach Smith, who is really looking forward to building the program over the next couple of seasons with the girls.”
McCaffrey visited the campus in January in the aftermath of a significant snow storm, which alleviated her concerns about a competing in the high desert climate.
“It was cool to see that there was snow in Flagstaff,” she said, adding that she was pleasantly surprised to find the surroundings had a familiar feel.
“Flagstaff is a super running town. There are a lot of professionals there,” she said, adding that it’s very much like Boulder in that respect. “And the weather is exactly like Boulder from what I’ve seen.”
McCaffrey also liked what she saw on campus, both off and on the track, and made up her mind to sign with the school almost immediately.
“Once I got back I thought I should probably take a couple more visits to places,” she said. “But there wasn’t any other place I wanted to go.”
Niwot cross country head coach Kelly Christensen echoed her sentiments about Flagstaff and the emerging running program at the University.
“I’m excited for her,” said Christensen, who is also an assistant for Niwot’s track and field teams. “It’s up and coming on the girls side. It’s a great place to train. It’s a lot like Boulder—it has that same type of running community.”
“She’s starting to break out this year a little bit, and we’re seeing a lot more of that potential,” he continued.
McCaffrey wrapped up her high school career by competing in the 3,200 meter race at the Class 4A championships held May 20-21, the only Niwot distance runner to qualify for the state meet. In the regular season, she set personal records in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. She also posted top-10 finishes in several cross country events last season, and capped the year with a first ever top-30 finish at the state meet. She will also compete on both teams for NAU, primarily in 3K, 5K and 10K meter races. She is undecided about her major, but is considering mechanical engineering or physical therapy, with a minor in nutrition.
Like teammate Jenna McCaffrey, Niwot senior track star Alexis Carroll needed some convincing before eventually committing to her ultimate college of choice, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. With serious offers from two other schools to consider, the four-year varsity hurdler and jumper wasn’t sure whether to accept a last-minute invitation from the Mountain Lions.
Like McCaffrey, Carroll was initially skeptical about her eventual college of choice. With serious offers from two other schools to consider, the four-year varsity hurdler and jumper wasn’t quite sure what to make of the last-minute invitation from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“At first I was actually a little iffy, because the coaches just asked me to come for an unofficial visit,” she explained. “I wasn’t too sure about it.”
At the time of her visit, Carroll had been on the verge of signing with Colorado School of Mines, and was also giving serious thought to an “almost full-ride” offer from Idaho State. But the visit to the UCCS campus, located northeast of downtown in the Cragmor Heights area of Colorado Springs, made her a believer.
“I went and visited and I really loved the campus,” she said, adding that she was also won over to UCCS by the coaches and their efforts to build a winning team. “I really liked the coaches a lot, and I knew a few of the girls who had signed or were going to sign, and I realized that they were actually putting together a really good program. They’re growing really fast, too.”
Carroll, who won individual titles in the long jump and triple jump at this year’s state 4A meet, will be joined as a freshman at UCCS next year by a number of Colorado track standouts, including Ceann Udovich of Lyons, whose 4×800 relay team took second in state, and Pueblo West’s Hannah Meek, who finished third in the state long jump behind Carroll and Niwot junior Mary Gillett.
As for life off of the track, Carroll was impressed by the UCCS’s academic offerings. A graduate of Niwot’s IB program, Carroll plans to major in mechanical engineering with a minor in biochemistry, and then go on to medical school. She will not, however, be pursuing a collegiate career in gymnastics, despite her success at Niwot, which included winning the individual state vault title in 2016 and the Class 4A team title in 2015.
“I’m done with it,” she said firmly. “It was good while it lasted, but I was so ready to be done with it after high school.”
Heading east to play ball on a college diamond is a common theme in the Ladd family, as Niwot senior Grace Ladd signed a letter of intent to play softball for Brown University. Ladd’s older brother, Ford Ladd, just completed his freshman season as a pitcher-first baseman for New York University’s baseball team, where he posted a 2-1 record on the mound and hit for a.375 average.
“I really like the east coast, Grace Ladd said. “I love the level of academic schools, and I love being by the ocean.” She noted that her parents, Jim and Mary Ladd, travels to the east coast often. Now they have another reason to make the journey.
Ladd will also pitch and play first base for Brown, located in Providence, RI, after hitting .547 with five homeruns and 32 RBI’s at Niwot during her senior season. She posted a 7-6 record in the circle, with a 3.23 earned run average. She also struck out 91 in just over 82 innings pitched.
“I love the coaches and the girls on the team,” she said. Ladd made a visit to the school last November, spending a weekend watching fall practice and getting to know the players and the coaches.
Brown University was Ladd’s choice of college, but it was hardly her only option. “I looked at Harvard, Georgetown, Northern Colorado, Bowling Green, Colorado Mesa and Fort Lewis,” Ladd said. In the end, Brown won her heart.
Ladd, who earned Salutatorian honors at Niwot High, plans to major in economics or psychology in college, with an eye toward a career in sports management or sports marketing. Ladd won’t be the only Niwot grad at Brown as her friend Eva Kitlen also plans to attend.
Niwot senior Jake Butler will continue his golfing career at Midland University in Fremont, NE, next fall. Butler was impressed with the success of the Midland golf program, which competes at the NAIA level.
“The golf team is always on top of the GPAC (Great Plains Athletic Conference),” Butler said. He was also impressed by the family atmosphere. “It’s a smaller school, and you get better relationships. They know you by name.”
Butler had a chance to meet the Midland golfers during a visit to the school. One of his friends, J.D. Truax from Eaton, Colorado, is also a member of the squad.
Butler had other opportunities, including Fort Lewis, University of Nebraska Omaha, Buena Vista University (IA) and the University of Sioux Falls (SD) but felt Midland was the best fit.
Butler’s high school coach, Ed Weaver, was on hand for the signing ceremony. Weaver noted that Butler led the Niwot squad to the state tournament. “He worked harder than anybody else,” Weaver said. “His dedication to the game showed. Jake was clearly the leader of our team. It was the first time Niwot had a 4-man team at state,” Weaver noted.