CHURCHILL -- The Manhattan Christian boys cross country program has won the past four Class C state team championships, including a record-setting performance last fall in Great Falls. The Eagles can set a Class C record with a fifth consecutive title this weekend in Kalispell.
"We honestly don't really think about the streak, we just think about the next meet," said head coach Nate TeSlaa.
Only three Class C boys cross country teams have put together four-peats, according to the Montana High School Association record books -- Seeley-Swan (1981-84), Kremlin-Gildford (1996-99) and the Eagles (2016-19) -- while Northern Cheyenne won four straight titles in the 1960s as Busby, though the first in 1966 was in the Class B ranks.
The Eagles are heavy favorites to stand on a pedestal of their own this weekend, with a bevy of talent that teams in every classification would dream of.
"We don't look at it as an individual sport, we look at it as a team sport. It's always been about the team," TeSlaa said. "What can you do to help the team? I think when you look at it that way, the individual pressure is off and it becomes, how do we support each other? That's kind of how we've always attacked this, and it's worked for us. They want to lift each other up, and that makes their accomplishments as individuals great, but they want the team to succeed more."
"We have four returning seniors, all of them placed in the top 15 last year. We're just excited to see what they can do this year," continued TeSlaa. "Riley (Schott) has been leading us all season long, and he's looking strong. Matt (Kenney) and Oren (Arthun), Oren is our freshman, they're looking strong, too, looking like they'll peak at the right time. We'll just see how the chips fall."
Schott went for third a year ago in Great Falls but won the Class C title as a sophomore in 2018. He's finished first at every meet but one this season -- falling to two-time runner-up Samuel Smith of Richey-Lambert -- setting up another potentially thrilling sprint to the finish line at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell on Saturday.
Smith owns Class C's fastest time of the season at 15:45, while Schott's 16:32 is the next best.
"He's always been a smart runner. He's been a smart runner since his freshman year," TeSlaa said of Schott. "I think he's going to put everything out of his head and do what he has to do to compete. It's been kind of fun, I know he and Sam have talked quite a bit when we have races together, so it's one of those things when you see people year after year, you kind of develop a relationship with them, and I think Riley will compete hard, he always has. We'll see what happens."
Kenney placed fourth a season ago, while Devan Walhof was fifth and Cullen Visser ninth as Manhattan Christian sent seven runners to the podium for all-state selections (finishing top 15), setting a new scoring record in the process. With the goal to go low, like golf, the Eagles tallied only eight points, with the scoring coming from the top three placers on each team.
Now-graduated champion Ben Morrison was given one point, Schott collected three and Kenney four in one of the more impressive feats in the MHSA record books.
TeSlaa can't, or won't, promise those kinds of results this weekend but looks forward to seeing what his crew can do.
"We're just excited to have state. It's looking cold, but it was cold last year," he said. "I hate to make predictions, so I never do that. I just know that my kids are mentally ready and they're physically ready, so it will be a fun race."
As impressive as the Eagles are in the boys competitions, the Seeley-Swan girls could be starting a streak of their own. The Blackhawks won last year's team title behind a then-sophomore (Sariah Maughan) and two then-freshmen (Emily Maughan and Kyla Conley) and are certainly favored to win again this weekend.
Sariah Maughan won the state meet as a freshman, before finishing fourth, one spot ahead of sister Emily, last year. Conley was one place back in fifth.
But Plentywood's Annie Kaul, another sensational sophomore, recently set a personal-best time of 19 minutes, 36 seconds, as she looks to improve on last year's runner-up finish. Belt-Centerville junior Lindsey Paulson actually boasts the best time in the state by more than 30 seconds, running a 19:05 at the Sunburst Refiner Invite on Oct. 15.
Paulson and Kaul are the only Class C girls to break the 20-minute barrier this season, per Athletic.net.
"It's going to be exciting. Those girls, it's pretty tightly packed," said TeSlaa, who guided Ava Bellach, now a sophomore, to a seventh-place finish in 2019. "If somebody has a good day, it could change things. That one is going to be tight, it's going to be one to watch, I'll tell you that."
"That's the part you love to see, those young kids stepping up and moving through the ranks," he continued, referencing the freshmen and sophomores littered throughout the all-state list. "You just hope that it catches a little bit of a bug and that Class C will keep churning out good, strong cross country teams.
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.