Athlete of the year finalists set new benchmarks

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The 12 finalists for the Daily Inter Lake’s Athlete of the Year all had incredible seasons. Read more about each athlete below.

BOYS

Garrett Graves

Eureka junior

Football, Wrestling,

Track & Field

Graves was one of the driving forces behind the most successful year in Eureka sports history. The junior, who committed to the University of Montana this summer, quarterbacked the Lions football team to its first state championship in school history, completing a Hail Mary on the final play of the title game in Missoula to send Eureka home as the top team in Class B. To back that up, Graves rolled to an undefeated season on the mats in wrestling season, taking the 182-pound crown and leading the Lions to their first state wrestling title in school history.

Ryggs Johnston

Libby sophomore

Golf, Basketball

Johnston sent hushes around golf courses throughout the state this spring, dominating the Class B competition with an undefeated run this season. To add to the mystique, he blitzed the state meet, shooting 11-under-par 61 on the opening day on the way to breaking his own all-class state record for two-day low score. If his game on the links wasn’t strong enough, the 6-foot-4 guard led the Loggers basketball team in scoring this season while earning all-state honors.

Tadan Gilman

Glacier senior

Football, Basketball,

Track & Field

Gilman’s leadership showed in helping two different Glacier teams to a state title game, while excelling as an individual in the spring. An all-state linebacker as a junior, Gilman switched to quarterback his senior season and earned all-state honors under center for the Wolfpack while guiding the team to the second-best offensive numbers in the state and a second-place finish. On the basketball court, he led a field of backcourt players for a Glacier team that slashed and shot its way to a state title without Hashley in the final minutes of the championship game. In the spring, he finished third in javelin, and in the top 10 of both the discus and shot put at the state meet.

Trae Vasquez

Flathead junior

Football, Wrestling,

Track & Field

Vasquez proved himself as one of the best athletes in the state, garnering all-state honors in three different sports. An all-American wrestler and a two-time state champion entering the season, he finished second in his weight class in wrestling but pulled in key points to lead Flathead to its first wrestling state title since 2009. He was an all-state cornerback for the Braves in football and used his athleticism in track to finish second in the long jump and help both Braves relays to top 6 finishes.

Jaxen Hashley

Glacier senior

Football, Basketball

Hashley missed most of his junior season at Glacier after suffering a knee injury. When he returned this fall, he was nothing short of sterling. The 6-foot-6 mobile mountain dominated on the defensive and offensive lines on the football field, helping anchor a Glacier team that made it to the state championship game. Back on the court for basketball season, Hashley transformed the Wolfpack from a team that missed the playoffs the year before to the Class AA state champion. An all-state center, he was one of only two players to average double digits in both scoring and rebounding at the state’s top level and carried a gravity on the court that took over games and allowed his teammates to thrive.

Dakota Bridwell

Columbia Falls senior

Football, Basketball,

Track & Field

Bridwell quarterbacked the Wildcats to the state title game for only the second time in school history, and in doing so threw for more touchdowns this season than any player in state history. The longtime starter for the Cats, Bridwell connected on a state-record 49 touchdown passes for 3,901 yards this season, using his legs to score seven more touchdowns. On multiple occasions, he threw for a state-record eight touchdown passes in a single game. He also won the Class A state javelin title and was one of the top scorers on the Wildcats basketball team.

GIRLS

Nikki Krueger

Glacier senior

Volleyball, Basketball, Track & Field

Krueger overpowered everything she did in her senior season. In the fall, she led Glacier’s volleyball team to its highest finish at the state tournament, a third place trophy, while playing nearly every point of six matches in the state tournament, leading the team in kills and filling out the stat sheet in nearly every category. On the basketball court, she was nearly unstoppable in the paint, finishing in the top 10 in the state in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. The future Carroll College Saint even was among the top players in the state in steals and 3-pointers made. In the spring, she and Hill bouyed Glacier’s title hopes all season, with Krueger often winning both shot put and discus events at each meet. Krueger wrapped up her second individual state title in May, winning the Class AA shot put championship by more than four feet.

Kiara Burlage

Columbia Falls senior

Volleyball, Basketball

Burlage led the Wildkats to Class A state titles in both volleyball and basketball her senior season, with a combined one loss all year. An all-around player for the undefeated volleyball team, she was second on the team in both kills and digs on the way to all-state honors and a second straight state title. She led the Wildkats basketball team in scoring and rebounding, finishing top 10 in the state in each category, on the way to a 32-1 record and the first state title in school history. She was dominant all season and scored 19 points in the championship game rout of Hardin.

Haley Nicholson

Whitefish senior

Soccer

A prolific scorer for Whitefish soccer throughout her career, Nicholson finished with 99 career goals after netting 29 goals in her senior season, second most in the state despite fielding double teams for most of the year. Her production helped lead the Bulldogs to their first conference championship since 2013.

Bryn Morley

Bigfork junior

Cross Country,

Track & Field

Morley’s dominance of the Class B distance events carried Bigfork to its first state track championship since 1992. She won the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the Class B state track meet, finished sixth in the 400 to score 31 points by herself, which could have placed fourth as a team. Along with running the second leg on the championship 1,600 relay, she added enough points to help Bigfork run away with the title, scoring a near-record 109 points. Her dominance wasn’t restricted to the spring, either. In the fall, Morley easily won her second individual cross country title, crossing the finish line a minute faster than the closest runner.

Tiana Johnson

Flathead senior

Volleyball, Basketball

Johnson was possibly the most dominant basketball player in the state this season, nearly willing the Braves from obscurity to the state tournament in her senior season. She led all Montanans with an average of 17.1 points per game on the basketball court en route to a first-team all-state selection. The Sacramento State commit also ranked among the top 5 in the state in rebounding, 3-pointers, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. In volleyball, Johnson earned a spot on the All-Western Conference second team.

Annie Hill

Glacier junior

Cross Country,

Track & Field

Hill continued to build on one of the best prep careers in state history this season. She recorded her third consecutive top-10 finish in the MHSA state cross-country meet in the fall, but that performance was merely a warmup for a jaw-dropping spring season on the track. Hill won the 1600-meter run after back-to-back second-place finishes in her freshman and sophomore years. She also captured the 800m and 3200m state titles, placed second in the 400m and anchored Glacier’s runner-up 4x400m relay team. In all, Hill accounted for 46 of the Wolfpack’s 71.5 points at the state meet, leading the team to a second-place finish, the best in school history.

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