MISSOULA — The Missoula Hellgate distance program is no stranger to producing some of the top talent from Montana in both cross country and track and field.
That machine churns on with three current Knight seniors signed, sealed and almost delivered to high-level NCAA Division I programs.
Ignatius Fitzgerald will run at the University of Oregon next year, Sage Brooks will head out east and compete at Syracuse, and Abby Kendrick will jump one state over to Idaho and run for Boise State.
All three athletes found running in different ways en route to achieving those Division I goals.
Fitzgerald's rise was quick and recent. Running wasn't always his future, but he found personal motivation to switch to track from lacrosse when his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer a few years ago.
"He was a big marathoner, he's ran Portland, he's ran Chicago," Fitzgerald said. "So he wasn't able to run anymore as a result of a couple of surgeries he had from that. And so I had never really run so I kind of begrudgingly agreed to start running and I was the last person in my family to start running. It kind of clicked pretty quickly, it was a lot of fun."
With the support of his father, Michael Fitzgerald, and the rest of his family, he's had a rapid rise these past two years. Fitzgerald placed third as a junior and senior at the State AA cross country meets in 2019 and 2020. This year, he ranks third in the state in the 1,600-meter run at 4 minutes, 26.89 seconds, less than a second away from the top time regardless of classification. He's also second in the state in the 3,200 but won the race at the Western AA Top 10 on Tuesday. In 2019, Fitzgerald also qualified for the Foot Locker Nationals, another milestone in proving this was the right sport for him.
"It's been a great journey," Fitzgerald said. "I can't give enough credit to my teammates. I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am without them. The community that has been fostered on this team is incredible. It's the biggest part of my running."
Brooks and Kendrick helped guide Hellgate to the 2018 girls cross country title and now take their final turns on the track.
Like Fitzgerald, Brooks' rise was more recent after nagging injuries early on in her career kept her off the course before she began to break out in her sophomore year of track and junior year of cross country. She also qualified for Nike Cross Nationals in 2019.
Brooks placed fifth and fourth at the state cross country meets in 2019 and 2020, respectively. On the track, Brooks ranks seventh in the 1,600 (5:20.38) this season and second in the 3,200 (11:16.34), regardless of classification, behind fellow Hellgate teammate in junior Kensey May.
But it's overcoming those early injuries that make her commitment to Syracuse even more special.
"I think a lot about how sometimes I'll finish a race and you'll see me start to cry out of joy, and I think that all of those obstacles are the reason why I feel just so overpowered with happiness is because I've been able to fight through all of those hard things," Brooks said. "As our strength training coach has always told me, it's not how many times you fall but how many times you get up. So that's really inspiring.
"I think about even two years ago it's not something I could have even dreamed of. So it's just been this crazy thing. Sometimes I think about where I was and where I am today and I'll be brought to tears because I'm so excited and happy."
Meanwhile, Kendrick is a former gymnast, who after making Foot Locker Nationals in cross country in 2019, began to draw a lot of interest from larger schools for distance running. Kendrick placed ninth as a sophomore when Hellgate's cross country team won state in 2018 and she followed that up with third-place finishes in 2019 and 2020.
In track, she ranks fourth in the state in the 800 (2:23.44) and eighth in the 3,200 (11:37.69), both regardless of classification.
All three are the most recent faces of a legacy in full force at Hellgate. And like her teammates, Kendrick said it's special to share these accomplishments with athletes she's grown with both on and off the track.
"It's amazing. Sometimes there's a bit of pressure revolving around the three of us especially because of the schools we've committed to," Kendrick said. "I think sometimes I take it for granted and it's just amazing to look at the two I'm running with and that I've gone through this high school experience with, and to know that the three of us committed to these DI schools is just crazy and I'm so grateful to be a part of it."