TOWNSEND -- Like many cross country coaches, Brooke Dolan was still strategizing in the middle of the week.
It may seem strange with the final meet of the year, the Montana High School Association state cross country championships, mere days away, but with 2020 being anything but normal, Dolan and her coaching counterparts are playing a game of mental chess.
"It's been such a weird year, so the state race is going to be different than most. Every year we're able to do (big races) like the Mountain West, Helena 7-of-7, things like that where these kids are racing against kids of that level, they get put in an elite pack. It's not an elite three or four, but an elite pack," explained Dolan. "This is going to be different this year because they haven't experienced that, so when they get there, I can foresee five or six of these girls going out in the lead pack and that would be a different race strategy than what they're used to. We're definitely going to have to think that through."
Dolan also knows whatever her final speech to the Townsend girls was a year ago may just work again this weekend.
The Bulldogs won the first Class B girls cross country championship in school history, placing four girls in the top 15, all-state status, to edge rival Manhattan by 14 points for the team trophy. Not a single Townsend runner graduated from that championship team, setting expectations high in Broadwater County.
"They're excited. We're kind of in the same spot as we were last year. Manhattan looks solid, very strong. They have Hallie Hemenway, who is very solid and definitely in contention, as are probably a handful of girls right now, including Emma Stolte on my team," said Dolan. "I honestly think it's going to come down to a matter of single-digit points between us and Manhattan. ... We've gone back and forth a little bit this year -- head-to-head my girls have only beat them once, but in these small meets it doesn't necessarily mean that much points-wise. It's going to be exciting to see what happens."
On paper, Stolte is the favorite to earn medalist honors after crossing the finish line second a year ago. Last year's champion, Hayley Burns of Colstrip, transferred to Bozeman, putting Stolte in the spotlight, though hers is a welcome target on her back.
"Emma is quite possibly the most competitive kid that I have ever coached. She wants it as much as any kid I've ever met," Dolan said. "She has a heart, wow, it's really incredible who she is. She's just that kid who wants it a lot more than other kids do and does the things to make that happen. She's so coachable. She's the kid that I can say, 'You need to do this,' and she believes you and does what you ask of her every time."
"She trusts the process, simple as that," Dolan added.
Stolte owns a season-best time of 19 minutes, 54.6 seconds, while Columbus sophomore Kelsey Plymale, who placed fourth last year, has Class B's third-best time at 19:39.6. Red Lodge sophomore Brayli Reimer leads the classification with a 19:29.6, while Glasgow's Iris McKean is second at 19:32.
Hemenway, Manhattan's No. 1, has been clocked at 19:49 this season and won her last three races, according to Athletic.net.
While the Bulldogs and Tigers are likely to see a down-to-the-wire finish in the girls race, the boys competition figures to be less exciting, according to Dolan.
"Eureka, honestly, they are just tough. It's going to be very difficult to beat them," she said of the defending champion Lions. "They're not only fast, but their split is extremely minimal between their No. 1 to No. 5, so they would have to have a very bad race to not win it."
Eureka placed three runners in the top 15 a season ago, including third-place Isaac Reynolds, who is the top returner in the field this season. The Lions also have back Chaidh Lochridge (seventh in 2019) and Gavin Bates (17th).
Glasgow's Carl Zabrocki enters the weekend with the fastest Class B time, 16:51, with Thompson Falls' Justin Morgan hot on his heels at 16:52. Zander Ackerman of Wolf Point is the only other Class B runner to break 17 minutes this fall, posting a time of 16:57.2 back in September.
Dolan believes her team, led by returning all-stater Ty Steele and senior Zach Wickens, could be in contention for a trophy if "we have some things go right, maybe run out of our minds," she said.
While this year's state cross country meet will be split into two days to reduce the potential exposure and contact of fans, coaches and athletes, Dolan said she and her team are thankful for the opportunity to compete this deep into the season.
"I know the fans that can be there are excited they get to be there. We're extremely excited, but we also have to take into consideration the teams that don't get to be there," she said. "I look at teams like St. Labre and Lodge Grass that don't get to be there (due to COVID-19 restrictions). St. Labre was third last year and I don't think they lost much, they were as deep as any team out there. So, even though we're extremely excited, we've also taken stock in being grateful and knowing that teams that would make a difference aren't going to be there. Not only teams, but individuals."
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.