KALISPELL -- It's safe to say few, if any, would argue the conditions were ideal for a state cross country invite at Rebecca Farm over the weekend, but not even Mother Nature could put a damper to the storylines available in the eight individual races.
Manhattan Christian's boys dominated once again, winning a Class C record fifth-consecutive state team title, while the Eagle girls also added a first-place trophy.
Hamilton coach Mark Albert added to his legacy with a clean sweep in Class A medalists, plus the Broncs won the boys team title.
Two streaks were snapped, others narrowly extended, and the most important thing remained the pride factor as athletes crossed the finish line, capping months of hard work with an emotional conclusion.
Manhattan Christian dominance
Nate TeSlaa and Manhattan Christian are starting to move past dynasty and trend toward pure dominance. The Eagle boys won a record-setting fifth Class C championship in a row over the weekend, placing runners in second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, though only three of those even count toward the team standings.
"It was great to see all the guys come across the finish line," said Riley Schott, who finished the race runner-up. "That was a very, very cold race, I was in pain for a lot of it. But I think we did good, I can’t complain. I can’t complain with how we did."
"It’s incredible. Starting where we did in eight grade, I had no idea we could go this far," Schott continued. "Even as far as I’ve gone, I’m just impressed with the team and the program in general. And the girls, too. It’s unreal. I’m so proud of everyone. I’m lost for words."
"Sometimes when you’re in it, it’s tough, but the moments like the team titles and races like this, you realize the work is worth it," said Manhattan Christian senior Matt Kenney, who placed fifth. "Even when you don’t have a great day individually, having a great day as a team is all worthwhile. This is awesome."
Doubling the fun? Christian’s girls had three all-staters in winning that team championship by a single point over last year's champion, Seeley-Swan.
"We wanted it so bad that it was something we really wanted, so coming into the finish line, looking behind me and seeing it was that close," said sophomore Ava Bellach, who placed third. "We were counting before they even announced it, we were like, ‘Let’s get it.’ It was really cool to see it happened. It’s what we wanted."
The Mark Albert impact
Manhattan Christian wasn’t the only two’fer on the weekend. Hamilton High swept the individual titles in Class A, plus the boys took the team championship. Bronc runners don’t have to look far when giving the credit — just ask two-time champ Brynnli Poulsen of coach Mark Albert’s impact on the program.
“That relationship kind of started a little rocky when I was a freshman and thought I knew everything, but we’ve really grown close and grown to trust each other," said Poulsen. "We really work with each other and I don’t know if I’m ever going to have a coach as good as him.”
Poulsen became the third individual state champion for Albert's girls program, winning in 2019 and 2020, while Jaycie Schmalz was the medalist in 2015. The Hamilton girls have earned three state trophies since 2007.
“Coach Albert, he’s such an amazing leader," added Colter Purcell, a Virginia transfer who won the boys race and helped the Broncs to the team title. "He’s taught me a lot about leadership, probably more about that than running. He’s really prepared us. Coming from basically seal level to altitude and still being able to pull times like this, everything goes out to coach. It’s due to him.”
Albert helped mentor Purcell to the Broncs' third individual championship, joining Anthony Schmalz (2013) and Cameron Meikle (2015). The team title was the fourth in program history. Albert is a three-time Montana Coaches Association coach of the year, and twice has been nominated for the National High School Athletic Coaches Association (NHSACA) national coach of the year honor.
Bozeman boys, Hardin girls see streaks end
They say all good things come to an end, sometimes with a little superstition. Bozeman’s boys had won 12 straight State AA team titles, so of course it’s No. 13 that messes things up. Stirling Marshall-Pryde won the medalist honor, but it was Tanner Klumph and Missoula Sentinel that stopped the streak short of a baker’s dozen.
"For me, personally, I feel like (the individual title makes up for missing the team title). I’m bummed that we didn’t get the win again," said State AA medalist Marshall-Pryde. "We lost our 12-year streak, which is a bit of a bummer. We all tried our best, what happened, happened. There’s nothing we can do about that now. I’m just really proud of everybody. We all tried as hard as we could and you can’t ask for anything more than that."
Hardin's girls entered the weekend winners of four consecutive in the Class A team standings, but Laurel and Columbia Falls figured to snap that streak. The Locomotives had four all-state finishes and all five scorers were in the top 20 in a convincing team victory.
"It was pretty exciting. I redeemed myself from last year," said Laurel senior and 11th-place runner Grace Timm, who was 42nd last year in Great Falls. "I was so happy to get all-state and help out my team this year. It feels so amazing as a senior to be a state champ, it's so exciting. Especially for our other senior (state runner-up Andria Mourich), it's so exciting and our whole team did amazing. I can't wait to look back on it."
Pride, joy and smiles all around
It may not have been noticeable in the moment, conditions certainly played a factor in that, but as runners crossed the finish line and looked back on the months, maybe years, of hard work they dedicated to their craft, it was easy to see the smiles start to spread, the hugs being shared and beaming pride and joy at the conclusion of the race.
“I came across and immediately looked for my team because those are my support," said Townsend junior Emma Stolte, who was third in the Class B girls race. "I saw Bailey (Taves) come across (eighth) and then right away I saw Sarah (Christensen) come across (ninth), then we waited like 10 more seconds and saw Justene (Santi) come across (12th) and I’m like, ‘We might have just done it.’”
Townsend edged Manhattan by a single point for the Class B team trophy, the Bulldogs' second in as many years.
"I don't think the conditions played a factor in mentally how I ran, maybe physically it might have slowed me down slightly," said State B girls champ Hallie Hemenway of the Manhattan Tigers. "Overall I didn't feel it being too cold or anything, it just felt like a state race. I think I was more focused on, 'It's a state race, I have to run my best," instead of what was going on around. It felt good to win."
Wolf Point harrier Zander Ackerman had perhaps the most fun finish of the individual champions. Coming down the home stretch -- a long, downhill finish -- Ackerman sprinted past Thompson Falls standout Justin Morgan to clinch the Class B title, letting out an exuberant victory yell before finding himself in happy, emotional tears.
"I took the lead for a little while, and I thought I was going to take it all the way," said Ackerman. "He's a strong kid, came back and started getting in front of me again. This backstretch, I really raced him and he's tough to beat. He's a good competitor."
"I'm really happy," Ackerman added, carrying his grin from the finish line back to the team staging area.
The Belt-Centerville co-op made an impressive showing over the weekend, with the mascot-less program crowning an individual champion, Lindsey Paulson, in the girls race, and adding a third-place team effort in the boys standings. Paulson, only a junior, says the program is gaining traction.
"That give us a lot of momentum for next year. This year we had a lot of new girls coming out, so this was their first year, so with a first-place title (for me) and those guys getting so much better, that does give us a lot of momentum going into next year," she said.
Richey-Lambert's Samuel Smith was the boys champion opposite Paulson, going start-to-finish as the favorite in Class C. Smith was proud of the individual win, but as a senior made sure to soak up his last high school race.
"Work as hard as I possibly can. Don’t try to do anything special, just work hard and run as fast as you can," Smith said of his plan. "All in all, a medal doesn’t matter. It crumbles into dust. First place, nobody will remember that in a while, but it’s so much fun to be here, so much fun to run and use the gift God gave me."
And, though Missoula Hellgate's girls couldn't quite overcome Bozeman for the State AA team trophy, the Knights did crown an individual champion in junior Kensey May. May's was one of the more impressive victories of the weekend as she blazed by reigning champion Kylie Hartnett of Helena High and state-favorite teammate Sage Brooks in the final half mile for the win.
Hartnett finished second, but Hellgate teammates Abby Kendrick and Brooks went 3-4, bringing a smile to May's face at the finish line.
"I’m really happy with how the rest of my team did. We sacrificed and worked hard, so we all deserve it," she said. "We were going to try to go 1-2-3. It was funny, at practice one time, Abby asked our coach, ‘Has anyone ever gone 1-2-3? We could do that.’ I’m really proud of Abby, because her plan was to stay with me, and she definitely did, and she did fantastic. Sage, her foot was kind of hurting, so I think that probably had a factor in her slowing down, but I think she could have won it too if it was a good day."