HELENA -- Kylie Hartnett hoped she would get a chance to defend her cross country crown. Barring any last-second catastrophes, she will.
Hartnett, a junior at Helena High, seeks a second consecutive Class AA cross country championship when the starting gun fires this weekend at the Montana High School Association championships at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell.
"We are all ready and excited to run. We're all happy we got to state and it didn't get canceled beforehand," said Hartnett. "I thought we had a good chance, but with all the COVID-19 numbers going up, we did get a little nervous that we weren't going to have our state meet and we would have to end mid-season."
Hartnett knows the pain of having a season taken away. After placing in a pair of distance races -- second and third in the 3,200- and 1,600-meter runs, respectively -- at the state track meet as a freshman in 2019, Hartnett was favored in each entering last spring, before the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately canceled the season.
Though guidelines and regulations have forced the implementation of changes to this cross country season, Hartnett is pleased with the miles and results she's seen.
"The season hasn't gone too bad. A lot of mental struggle more than physical, but it's been going pretty good. I'm excited but nervous for state," she admitted. "It's just really nerve-racking because you know this is supposed to be your best performance all year, and none of the other races matter as much. So, that's a lot of stress. Plus, we haven't been able to see the (Eastern AA) teams yet, so we don't know what to expect from them, so that makes me a little more nervous."
Hartnett won last year's State AA race in 17 minutes, 49.68 seconds, nearly 15 seconds better than the runner-up finish. But this year's races, at least in the Western AA, have been a three-headed monster.
"I bet Sage Brooks and Kensey May out of (Missoula) Hellgate will probably push to be the champion," said Hartnett, "because Sage has been pushing me all year and Kensey is now speeding up and she just beat Sage in a race the other day, so I bet she'll be some competition, too."
"I expect it to be pretty fun," she continued. "I bet it will go by pretty fast and we'll all be excited to run our hardest, see where we place. I know Sage wants to win and I want to win, so it will definitely be a battle to the finish line this year."
In the most recent race between the trio, it was Brooks taking the tape some 20 seconds ahead of Hartnett, but in their lone race at Rebecca Farm, where they'll line up Saturday at 2 p.m., Hartnett boasted the medalist honors, followed by May, then Brooks.
Saturday's race is anyone's guess, though Hartnett, Montana's reigning Gatorade runner of the year, does have the state-championship experience from last October and hopes it works in her favor. Brooks owns Class AA's top time this season, 17:59.4, the lone under-18 mark of the fall, while Bozeman freshman Natalie Nicholas is actually second at 18:10.8.
"I've just been visualizing the race and preparing to run my own race and not someone else's race, that way I do my best," said Hartnett. "If I run Sage's race, she'll most likely beat me, so I've been planning my own race, the strategies I would like to run at state."
Meanwhile, the Class AA boys will have a new champion after last year's winner, Simon Hill of Kalispell Glacier, graduated, as did runner-up Ian Curtis of Missoula Hellgate. The Knights do return Ignatius Fitzgerald, who placed third last fall, and Missoula Sentinel's Wyatt Mortenson has also impressed, setting a personal-best time of 16:04.2 back in September.
Billings Skyview freshman Gavin Budge has also come on strong late in the season, trimming nearly 1:30 from his season-opening time with a PR of 16:00.2 earlier this month in the Magic City, though Bozeman's Stirling Marshall-Pryde blazed through the course to a personal record of 15:39.8, the best mark of the year by an astounding 20 seconds.
Bozeman and Missoula Hellgate scored an identical 54 points in the boys team race last fall, while the Bozeman girls ran away with the trophy, beating Hellgate by 22 points. Hartnett and Helena High finished third, earning the program's first trophy in more than three decades.
The 2020 MHSA state cross country meet will begin on Friday with four races -- Class A girls and boys, then Class B girls and boys -- and conclude Saturday with the Class C and Class AA competitions. Races are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. each day.