MISSOULA — When Craig Mettler took over the Missoula Sentinel track and field program as head coach in 2016, there was some building to do.
Specifically, on the boys side, where the Spartans earned just two points at the 2016 state meet, while the girls were farther along with a third-place finish.
"In 2016, we started at the bottom and just had to continue to develop the student-athletes that we had walking in our building and that was the big key was how can we get the best athletes but not just that how can we find the best competitors," Mettler said.
Those results were the beginning of what became a Class AA dynasty over the next five seasons.
Under Mettler and his staff, the Spartan girls won three team state championships in 2017, 2018 and 2021. The boys, meanwhile, won their third straight team title two weekends ago in Butte.
"It's more rewarding when you build something up from the ground up, so to speak, when you maybe don't have the success early on," Mettler said. "And then after 9, 10 years of work, you see that time and effort pay off."
Since Mettler took over in 2016, Sentinel has earned 11 individual state titles on the boys side plus a relay championship in 2022, while the girls have racked up 14 individual championships in that time frame. The program has also put numerous kids in college to compete at the next level.
Standouts like Ashley McElmurry, Lauren Heggen, Rylan Ortt, Elias DeWaters, Kylie Frohlich, Jaden Foster, Emily Malone, Zac Crews, Drew Klumph, Brooke Stayner, William Mortenson, Audrey McElmurry, Jace Klucewich, Jonathan Harrison, Anja Jackson, Shelby Schweyen, Hudson Lembke and Keagen Crosby have all brought home individual titles for the Spartans while countless others scored at state to solidify Sentinel's team titles.
"I think having that combination of those two (elements) of athletes and coaches is a great recipe for success, and we've been blessed to have groups of kids roll through here that bought into that process, and groups of coaches who bought into the process, and just treated each other well," Mettler said.
Now, Mettler is on to another chapter in his life.
The recently new father — his daughter Wyatt was born just over eight weeks ago — is working to get an administrative position at Sentinel, and Mettler stepped down from the Spartan track and field program after the season concluded.
While his run as head coach is over, for Mettler, it was more about the group than himself.
"It took a group of individuals to create and develop the program over time," Mettler said. "We believe in having a strong athletic department, and when you have a strong athletic department, and those coaches are connected, and they support each other, you tend to see more success overall for all programs."
And there will be plenty of memories from Sentinel's successes.
"I think it always comes back to people," Mettler said, battling tears. "I say it a lot. It's cliche. But you have to have good people and I think that's what it boils down to is having good humans surrounding you and people who know more than you."