MISSOULA — For the first time in 11 years, the Missoula Loyola girls track and field program brought home a team state championship last weekend in Butte.
It was an underdog tale of sorts, as Loyola took just six female athletes to the state meet, but it was a mighty contingent that wound up getting it done.
"Being able to take six girls to state, five of which placed and win the state title, it just shows how much each person can bring to the team," junior sprinter and hurdler Isabelle Berry said. "We have limited numbers, but we're still able to do great things."
And great things were synonymous with Berry over the weekend
The junior played a massive role in the team title, as Berry — who was the reigning 200 champ — won three individual events in the 100, 200 and 100 hurdles on Saturday. She also took third in the 300 hurdles and ran a leg on both of Loyola's relay teams.
That success came for an athlete who saved her breakout meet for the biggest one of the year.
"We were all crying and we knew that we could place high, but I don't think any of us went in like expecting," Berry said. "We were all just like we deserve to be here and so does everyone else so we're going to compete to the best of our ability and turned out to be first.
"I would say my sophomore year, I did the same events, I had the same workload but I was under a lot more mental stress for myself because I think track is a super, super mental sport. And so my sophomore year, I was a little intimidated by the fact that that I had to go out and get on the track 10 times.
"But this year, being able to come back and do that again but better was really good. I was able to see my progress which is what I wanted in the end, and being able to come back and I was always thinking when I got first, there's 10 points to the team score. You're just kind of calculating and thinking about what your placing would get in terms of team score."
The drama was palpable on Saturday as the team scores shook out.
The final event of the meet was the 1,600-relay, and Loyola entered that race with a 10-point lead over Huntley Project. Project wound up winning the race to score 10 points, so Loyola needed to just place in the top six to maintain their lead in the team standings, and the Breakers, did just that with a fifth-place finish.
"It feels really good that maybe it was a little close, but it feels really good that we all four of us worked together and everyone had a tremendous leg and got us all in that spot where we could win and we just brought it home," sophomore mid-distance runner Ireland Johnston said.
Johnston was also key in Loyola's championship as she finished in second in the 400 and 800, and she anchored the 1,600-relay to bring it home at the very end for Loyola.
"I noticed that a lot of the teams were going very fast, and I knew that we could just like be safe and be smart and we can't rush anything because if we rush and go out too hard and die in the end, we could be placed farther back," Johnston explained. "So I knew that the first three legs that they could run their race and that I just had to execute and try my best to get us in that top three."
"It felt so good and made me proud of, not just myself, but my entire team, and not only the team that went to state but the team that we've been training with all season, and it just made me feel so proud and very excited that we won and we were kind of the underdogs coming in, we didn't really get our names out there last year.
"We came in and we didn't really know that we could place first. Our coaches told us that but I think when we got to the meet we finally realized that we have a chance and that we actually need to run hard and fight for the first place spot."
With a first-place finish on the girls side while the boys took second as a team, track and field is bright at Loyola, especially when you consider they won't lose any placers from their girls team heading into next year.
With momentum on their side, it could be a special run for years to come.
"I started off day one of this year telling both the boys and the girls that I believed they could fight for a state championship," Loyola head track and field coach Justin Johnston said. "The girls were a little bit more hesitant than the boys thinking I was pulling their leg or something like that. But being the first championship in 11 years, going to get our banner hung up this fall up there, it's a big deal for the overall health of a program.
"But just to see the reward and payoff and reliving it almost every day looking through all of the pictures that were caught of just that moment when they won the outright excitement, it almost brings you to tears on a daily basis when you go back and relive it.
"The Loyola girls, the Breakers, they have the potential to go on a two, three, four-year run now. We're pretty excited on both ends for next year and the expectation will be high, they will hear it Day 1 that we fight for state championships at Loyola. Football was in it, our boys basketball was in it, volleyball, soccer all had great seasons and we capped it off and tennis capped it off too but that's what we do at Loyola, we fight for state chippers."