High School Cross Country

Atkinson, Nielson fuel Cougars’ run to state

By Dennis Silva II | Sports Editor
Posted 11/22/20

Not long before the first race of the season, Cinco Ranch senior Heidi Nielson called a team meeting.

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High School Cross Country

Atkinson, Nielson fuel Cougars’ run to state


Not long before the first race of the season, Cinco Ranch senior Heidi Nielson called a team meeting.

Ever since they were freshmen—heralded as two of the top runners in the state even then—Nielson and senior Sophie Atkinson talked about goals, expectations and standards for the Cougars’ cross country program. Now that they were seniors, they weren’t about to let their final campaigns go for naught.

“We made a poster board, and we said we were going to win district, we were going to win regionals and then we’re going to go to state,” Nielson said. “I’ve known these girls for years. I know we’ve had the potential. It’s been about getting everybody on board and ready to work. It was on us to get these girls to want this as badly as us seniors do. It worked.”

Cinco Ranch, led by University of Virginia signee Atkinson and University of Arkansas signee Nielson, is back at state for the first time since 2017. The Cougars finished sixth overall as a team that year.

“The last two years have kind of been disappointing,” Atkinson said. “We’d do real well and just weren’t able to make it past district. This year, we just decided we didn’t want that to be the case. We wanted to make change. We had an opportunity with the delay with the coronavirus to kind of use that to our advantage, as time for us to reset and focus on doing better. Everybody got on the same page and we really used each other to gain momentum and continue to stay excited.”

Indeed, the Cougars are true contenders to win the UIL Class 6A state meet on Tuesday, Nov. 24, at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. They won Region III by 18 points over second-place Kingwood. Atkinson and Nielson finished first and second, respectively, just as they have four other times this season: the Brenham Hillacious Invitational, the Klein ISD Invitational, the Seven Lakes Showcase, and the District 19-6A meet.

“It’s amazing how dominant they are,” Cinco Ranch coach Dana Mathis said. “You think back to when they were young freshmen, little and tiny, and they were beasts. They haven’t peaked. They’ve continued to grow and work hard and be super dedicated to everything they’re doing and their team.

“Sometimes you see people who are that dominant and they think, ‘What team?’ But these two are the complete opposite. They’re amazing.”

Atkinson credits rigorous offseason training for her success this season. She has not lost any of the six races she’s competed in. She ran a 17-minute,0.40-second time to win the Nike South Invitational on Oct. 3, setting a meet record. Then she set a personal record with a time of 16:40.90 to win the district meet Oct. 30.

“She put a lot of work in this summer, coming into this season running better than she ever has before,” Mathis said. “She’s continued to chip away at her time.”

Atkinson said it seems “full circle” that things are coming together for the Cougars during her senior year. Atkinson finished 34th at state last season, ninth in 2018 and 27th in 2017.

“Obviously, there’s some pressure with it being the last high school race,” Atkinson said. “But it’s also exciting because things are really taking place for all of us. It’s nice to have one last chance to run for my school and with my teammates on the line. I’ve only ever been at this meet with teammates one time, so it’s exciting that they’ll be with me this year.”

Nielson, who competed at state in 2018 and 2017 and finished fourth both times, did not compete in the district, regional or state meets last season because of a femur injury. She also suffered a quad injury during the summer. And though she is running well, Nielson is still coping with trying to return to full health.

“It’s weird getting back to normal and understanding racing again,” Nielson said. “It’s hard for me to remember what it was like before the injury. The hardest part is mental, getting your confidence back and wanting to be competitive again when for so long it was about just trying to run without pain again.”

Mathis said Nielson’s work rehabbing and getting stronger so she can be her best self for her team has been admirable. And though Nielson may not be pleased with her racing, the results this season are hard to be dissatisfied with: one first-place finish and five second-place finishes.

“I can’t complain,” Nielson said. “I just want more for myself. I love this team. I feel I’ve done a good job wearing the Cinco jersey. Hopefully this last season can be the best.”

Mathis said she has a team that works hard for each other, and it starts with Atkinson and Nielson. Their selflessness is infectious.

Aside from the dynamic duo, two other Cougars—junior Alison Mueller and sophomore Helen Ulrich—have performed impressively this postseason. Both finished in the top 20 at the regional meet. Sophomore Lindsay Krippner has been a welcomed addition of the same ilk as Atkinson and Nielson, working tirelessly to help make the team better.

Add veteran senior Camila Corser and junior Natalia Corser, and the Cougars are optimistic they can cap off the illustrious careers of Atkinson and Nielson in state championship fashion.

“We’re all going in with a mentality to attack the course,” Atkinson said. “That’s what we’ve done the whole season. We run with a purpose and go for it and be intense. As long as we all go out there and do our best, good results will come. But we’re going to go for it, for sure.”


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