HELENA — The state championship banner is finally hung, a lot of which has to do with the Helena High girls' track and field coach, Jesse Zentz.
With the banner and the trophy comes his coach of the year honor; Zentz doesn’t credit himself for this accolade, but his fellow coaches and track athletes.
“It's more of a testament to the coaching staff, to the kids who've just built an awesome climate here," Zentz said. "They've bought into everything. We've tried to sell them. But it's just a fantastic group of kids, a fantastic group of coaches. And I truly believe that every kid played a role in this happening.
"Obviously, a lot of this comes from the fact that we won the state championship this year. But we wouldn't be able to do that without everyone's buy in. And everyone's you know, effort and attitude being the right way every day. I just owe a lot to my coaching staff and to the kids who did such an amazing job this year. But it, it means a lot, because I think it's validation on what we're trying to accomplish here as a program. You are really trying to develop good people versus just good athletes. And I think we're accomplishing that,” the head coach said.
Though the girls track and field program has already accomplished so much in Zentz’s two-year tenure, he feels there’s still more work to be done.
“The last two years, the kids have set a great foundation for us to build from, second place two years ago and first place this last year. I think that's only a piece of what we want to accomplish. Obviously, we want to compete with the best. We want to be the best from a competitive standpoint. But what will make me the most proud is if these kids move on to college, they feel like they're prepared,” he said.
“They get into an environment at the college level if they're going to compete at the college level where they feel like we gave them room to grow still. But also, you know, if they choose not to compete and track and field, if they do another sport or if they just focus on their studies, they head into college feeling empowered and excited about those opportunities, like we gave them a platform to build from,” he added.
But Zentz is already doing that. In just two seasons under his coaching, he brought the Bengals their first state championshipin 22 years, scoring 144 points — the highest team total since 2003. Zentz has also helped get his girls into Division I track and field programs and into meets like the Junior Olympics.
“When I took over two years ago, in my interview, I remember saying that I really want track and field to be thought of as a sport itself, not just a training ground for other sports. And I think the kids have really bought into that idea. I know our coaches have- that track and field is its own sport and deserves its own recognition and credit. And I feel like it's getting there here. And I think, if that happens, the kids will have that passion, they'll be excited about the sport of track and field. With the Novas program locally, the excitement is just slowly built. And it's been simmering for a long time. But now, I really do feel like people are getting more and more passionate about the sport of track and field,” he said.
“I just saw yesterday, a tweet that somebody published from the National Federation of High Schools that track and field is now the most popular high school sport. And it makes sense because there's, there's something for everybody to find a place where they fit in. And I think with throws and jumps and involved and and then obviously, the running and hurdling. No matter what kind of athlete you are, there's hopefully a place you can find somewhere where you can enjoy it. You can show up every day and learn something new. And I think that's what makes this sport so special,” he added.
Zentz’ biggest wish for his girls is that they walk away from the program feeling empowered.
“We tell the girls, you are enough as you are. And I think that if they can leave our program feeling empowered to pursue their own dreams and pursue what they want to without maybe some of the traditional things getting in their way. I think that's the most important thing that they can take away from our program. Hopefully they do. I know that every girl that runs cross country, or runs or competes for the track and field program, they do hard things every day. And I think when you learn to do hard things like that, then you get into later stages of your life and those things that come up either as a parent or a professional, hopefully they learned things in our program that help them feel empowered,” Zentz said.