BOZEMAN — Since Bozeman Gallatin High School opened its doors four years ago, each athletic program has been able to cultivate its own identity.
Junior Claire Rutherford has led that charge for the girls cross country team. Now, she’s the back-to-back Montana Gatorade runner of the Year.
"She came in the second year, she joined our program, and it took her a while to get the hang of it," Raptors coach Graydon Curry said of Rutherford's growth as a runner.
"After about a year of running under her belt, it was like, ‘OK, this is someone special. This is as hard a worker as you’re going to find, as coachable of a person as you’re going to find.' And it just took off from there."
Rutherford went from picking up a sport that piqued her interest her freshman year to becoming a state champion in both her sophomore and junior seasons.
Her most recent title in the fall of 2023 encapsulated her hard work paying off, as it was one of the most intense competitions to win.
"This year (was) probably icing on the cake for that second state championship," Curry said. "It was just like, wow. She ran perfect and trusted herself."
Rutherford knew she would have to run a perfect race going into the meet. And even then, there are no guarantees with the high level of competition this past season.
"Going into it, I knew I was going to have to have a good day today because there were so many people that were so close together," she reflected. "Being able to be in there mentally and adapt to what other people did, matching their moves or making a move, which is what I did at the end."
She crossed the finish line in 18:06.58 to win state for the second straight year. Gallatin placed second as a team.
The part of her game that has grown the most stems from her high IQ and desire to compete. Curry said the understanding of how to race and win those tighter competitions has been the most important of her strides as a runner.
"She has learned so much about racing in these couple of years," Curry said. "That she’s figured out lots of different ways to win races, and we walk through different scenarios of what the race could look like. She can pretty much win in any way at this point."
She led Gallatin’s program to find its identity — and it’s one that’s dominant. Outside of the titles, the Raptors are a family, according to Rutherford. Everyone on the team wants to see one another succeed, which is a culture she helped build.
"We always lift each other up, basically," she said. "That’s one of the biggest things. We’re always there cheering each other on for each other's races. We notice when someone PRs, and we’re really happy for them."
While the program found its meaning in this sport, Rutherford also found her "why" with cross country.
"I just really enjoyed it," she said, thinking back on when she first picked up the sport her freshman year. "So, I just want to keep going with this over the winter, which is what I did, and I saw some huge physical fitness gains, which is really where I started to be like, 'Oh, I really do want to keep pushing myself and keep seeing where I can go with this.'"
Up next for the junior, she’s looking to continue her success with track and field this spring for the Raptors.