Cross country is back in the Flathead Valley, and the stars figure to shine brighter than ever in 2017.
Glacier’s Annie Hill seeks her third Class AA individual title, Bigfork’s Bryn Morley her second straight in Class B and Polson’s Beatrix Frissell is expected to be among the top runners in Class A.
Flathead’s Ben Perrin has his sights set on the individual boys state title in Class AA.
But it isn’t just the individuals with their eyes on championships.
The Bigfork girls are a favorite after finishing 1-2 last season. The Whitefish and Polson girls both believe they are capable of competing for a state title in Class A.
As the season revs up, the Inter Lake takes a look at all area teams and previews the season.
Most of the eyes turned toward the Glacier cross country team this fall will be fixated on Annie Hill, the nationally-ranked phenom who will lead the Wolfpack girls this fall.
But as Hill and Glacier’s third-year head coach Jacob Dietz both know, one outstanding runner does not a team make.
A fourth-place finisher at last year’s state meet, the Glacier girls have their sights set on a bit of school history this year.
“The girls really want to be on the podium,” Dietz said. “Thus far in Glacier girls cross country history, they’ve yet to do that, so that’s kind of their big goal. They want to be in that race for that top 3 spot.”
The Wolfpack will need strong showings from Hill to make that happen, and if the past is any indication, she’s up to the task.
Hill enters her senior year fresh off an outstanding track season that saw her take the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter state titles. Ranked the No. 8 prep female runner in the nation by DyeStat.com and No. 14 by MileSplit.com, Hill will be gunning for her fourth consecutive top 10 finish at state.
“She’s very motivated,” Dietz said. “She’s set some big goals on the national level this year and has had a good summer and is looking great.”
While Hill is the clear frontrunner, the Wolfpack has a bevy of girls behind her that will go a long way in determining whether the team will meet its goal.
Addie Labrum and Kinzie Peterson are back after strong performances at state as freshmen, and senior Adrian Schnee, junior Mckenna Kauffman and sophomores Aubre Grame and Emma McDonald will all be in the mix to round out the varsity scorers.
“They’ve been putting in a lot of work, a lot of them, since last cross country season, and they are just looking that much stronger,” Dietz said. “Just a great group of girls and really motivated by each other.”
The Glacier boys will also look to take a step forward this year after a third-place finish at state in 2016.
Seniors Elijah Boyd, who led Glacier with a 13th-place finish at state a year ago, and Joe Vander Bos will lead a team that features a deep junior class with Aren Alexander-Battee, Max DeVries, Avery Hanson and others expected to compete for spots on varsity.
Simon Hill, Annie’s younger brother, enjoyed a stellar freshman cross country season, and Dietz said he expects even more from Hill this year.
“He had a huge breakthrough as a freshman in track, so we’re pretty excited about what he could do this year in cross country,” Dietz said.
Like the girls, the Glacier boys also are aiming for a podium finish — if not more — in 2017.
“You’re looking for improvement,” Dietz said. “We were (four points) out of second last year, so I think they’ve got a little fire from that. The team in general is pretty motivated.”
Every individual on the Flathead boys cross country team has a goal for this fall’s season.
For some, that goal is simply to improve. For others, it’s to rise from the middle of the pack to near all-state contention.
For Ben Perrin, the goal is much more lofty.
“He’d like to win state,” said longtime Flathead boys cross country head coach Paul Jorgensen.
If the past is any indication, Perrin is on his way to doing just that.
After finishing 17th as a freshman — highest in his class — at the state meet, Perrin moved up to 12th with a time of 15:46, more than 20 seconds faster than the next sophomore.
Of the 11 athletes who beat him, six have since graduated. Plus, Jorgensen, who has coached at Flathead since 1972, said he expects Perrin to be even better this year.
He hopes Perrin’s expected success carries over to the team.
“Our main goal is to finish in the top 3, which is a trophy,” Jorgensen said. “That’s always our goal.”
Flathead finished sixth at state a year ago, but Jorgensen believes the team has the ability to accomplish more in 2017.
The Fischer brothers — sophomore Keaton and senior Griffin — are each likely to be consistent varsity runners, and juniors Parker Gillespie and Kyle Calles will also jostle for positioning at the top of the varsity roster.
The picture is murky behind them, but the team has a handful of junior varsity runners who could wiggle their way into contention.
“These kids, they’re working especially hard,” Jorgensen said. “It’s a great group for me this year as far as how hard they work, and most of them have run in the offseason.”
Entering her 11th season at Flathead, Jesse Rumsey coaches a girls team that finished 10th at state last year, but like the boys, has the potential for upward movement this season.
“Last year was a little bit of a building year for us, and we do have a lot of depth this year,” Rumsey said. “A coach really appreciates that intrasquad competition, and we just have really mature, healthy level of competitive girls on the team right now.”
Kaitlin Wride, a senior, is the unquestioned leader of the team after all-state finishes the past three years.
Behind her are juniors Sadie Wilson and Meaghan Fisher, both of whom logged many miles this summer and should be much improved, according to Rumsey.
Flathead hopes the improvement of those and other runners will lead to a better result for the team this fall.
“I feel confident that we will improve our state finish,” Rumsey said. “At this point in time, it’s hard to tell exactly where that will be. I always hesitate to put a number on it, but we’re looking for a much-improved team finish.”
Seniors Mara Lorch and Hanna Brann and junior Hailey Allen will be right in the thick of things for varsity spots, but they’ll have to fend off Hannah Perrin and Tori Noland-Gillespie, a pair of fast freshman also expected to compete for space on the varsity roster.
“We’ve got a tight pack of girls, probably the tightest pack we’ve had in years,” Rumsey said. “We have some of our incoming freshmen who have not had a team to really train with at the level that they were at, so I’m looking forward to the depth of the training and to see how the competition shakes out.”
There was no need for the Whitefish girls cross country team to reload after a second-place finish at state last fall.
Each of the five scoring runners from the Bulldogs’ young 2016 team returns this year for what figures to be a run at a state title.
Hardin, which edged Whitefish by five points for the state championship, graduated two of its three best finishers at the state meet, seemingly leaving the door open for the Bulldogs to capture their first cross country state championship since 2007 if things fall into place.
“I think they recognize the opportunity that’s before them,” second-year Whitefish head coach Richard Menicke said of his girls team. “This is a team that kind of has the experience. They’ve been there. Cross my fingers, I think, if we can stay healthy, we have a chance to do really good things this year.”
Menicke, along with volunteer assistants Matt Weller, Kathy Ness and Aldo Kunz, has good reason to be optimistic, as all-state runners Ella Greenberg and Braya Hobson return as juniors to lead a Whitefish squad that is experienced despite its youth.
Jessica Henson and Josephine Vardell, both of whom were all-conference performers in 2016, join Katie Arterburn to form a sophomore trio that will push each other — and perhaps Greenberg and Hobson, as well — throughout the season.
The three sophomores finished within a 19-second span at last fall’s state meet, and all five runners crossed the finish line within a one-minute stretch.
“We have young runners, so the really cool thing about this is they just don’t know how good they can be,” Menicke said. “That’s a beautiful thing to watch as coaches, kind of how they start to stretch their limits once they get a little confidence.”
The Whitefish boys, coming off a 10th-place finish at state, must replace Ethan Potthoff and Sage Cornelius, both of whom graduated after strong finishes at state last year.
Even so, Menicke is optimistic about the team’s chances to improve.
Senior Josh Weller is the top returning runner, and he’ll be pushed by fellow senior Eric Holdhusen and sophomores Miles Brentas and Bridger Gaertner.
Brentas, in particular, has made strides over the offseason, and Menicke expects big things from the young runner this year after a strong finish to the 2016 cross country season and encouraging showings in track this spring.
“Not only does he have a great name, but he’s got a great work ethic,” Menicke said. “He ran the most miles of anybody on the team this summer, easily.”
The boys team grew from 13 runners last year to nearly 20 in 2017, and Menicke is hopeful the increased depth will ignite competition for the final spots on the varsity team.
“That’s going to bring good things for the boys,” Menicke said. “We want to see and feel improvement from how we did last year. We want to just be competitive in both our conference and at the state level.
“I think this is a team that has a greater potential than last year, and I just want to see these athletes reach their potential.”
The worst adversity the Columbia Falls girls cross country team are likely to face this season came before practice even started.
The Wildkats’ best runner from a year ago — Kimberly Peacock, the individual runner-up in last year’s Class A state meet as a freshman — was diagnosed with Leukemia earlier this summer.
Despite having its best runner and a team leader cruelly snatched away from the sport, the team is determined to improve on its fourth-place finish and compete for a state title in Peacock’s honor as she battles the disease.
“There are some really good cross country teams out there (in Class A), and it’s going to be fun to see if this team can be right back in that mix and be one of the teams people are talking about going into the state meet,” said Jim Peacock, Kimberly’s father and the second-year head coach at Columbia Falls. “(A state title is) something the girls still have their sights set on.”
With a strong returning cast and an infusion of youth, the Wildkats believe they have the talent to compete.
Junior Genevieve Delorme just missed out on all-state honors in 2016, finishing 17th, and she is expected to be step in and lead the team this fall in Peacock’s absence.
She’s joined at the top by freshman Lara Erickson, a strong middle school runner a year ago who is expected to contribute heavily on varsity this year.
“She’s running side-by-side with Gene Delorme,” Peacock said of Erickson. “I don’t think I’ve seen the kid even break a sweat yet.
“She’s a very talented young runner.”
Senior Raina Crowell, junior Raychel Hoerner and sophomore Kara Mohr are returning contributors on varsity, but things are unclear behind them.
Peacock predicts it will be a battle throughout the year for the final varsity spots.
“I think every week our varsity lineup is going to be shifting and moving depending on how kids run week by week,” he said.
The Columbia Falls boys face a different challenge this year — replacing three seniors who were major contributors on last year’s team, including all-state runner Sage Wanner.
Even so, Peacock is confident a strong group of returners and an infusion of youth can yield improved results for the Wildcats, which finished sixth at state in 2016.
“Every year, teams always have a little different dynamic,” Peacock said. “These guys, they’re going to work well together. They’re a good group of kids. They work hard.”
Senior Gabe Knudsen figures to lead the way after finishing 19th at state, just outside all-state, as a junior.
Junior Bryce Bennett was an “off and on” varsity runner last year as he battled injuries, but he is now healthy and expects a strong comeback season in 2017.
“It’s nice to have that kid back and doing his thing,” Peacock said. “If he can stay healthy, people are going to wonder where he came from.”
Junior Beau Umbriaco and sophomore Joe Lamb also return after placing at state in 2016, and a strong class of freshmen will join the mix looking to replace the talent lost.
“I’m looking forward to watching some of these freshmen develop as the year goes on, because they’re going to be strong contributors to what we’re doing and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Peacock said. “They will definitely help.”
Only two runners finished ahead of Polson’s Beatrix Frissell at last year’s Class A girls state cross country meet.
With neither of those set to run again this fall, Frissell enters the season as one of the favorites to capture the individual state title.
Matt Seeley, entering his 13th season as Polson’s head coach, anticipates Frissell will lead a pack of three Pirates who have all-state potential and could thrust the team into state championship contention.
“We aren’t quite as deep as I would like to be, but we do have six that look strong, and I think that might be enough to really contest at the end of the year,” Seeley said.
The Polson girls enter the 2017 season bound to improve on a fifth-place finish at the state meet in 2016 and make a run at the Pirates’ first state title since 1994, and whether they can accomplish that will depend partly on whether Frissell can improve on a phenomenal sophomore year in cross country and track.
She followed her third-place finish at the state cross country meet with a runner-up finish in the 3200-meter run in track, and Seeley said she should be even better this year after an offseason of rigorous training.
“We expect a high finish from her,” Seeley said. “(Frissell is) just an incredibly hard worker and an incredible competitor when it comes to big races. It’s really exciting to see what she’s going to do and also how she’s going to be able to lead our team.”
Junior Molly Sitter earned all-state honors as a sophomore, and senior Naima Crowl also has all-state potential after finishing 21st at state last year.
Selley’s two daughters — senior Malia Seeley and sophomore Gwen Seeley — and freshman Nina Barfoot will round out a varsity girls team that returns all of its top runners from last fall.
The Polson boys bring back most varsity runners after a ninth-place finish at state.
The Pirates’ top runner in 2016, Quin Stewart, is now a junior and will be in the running for all-state this fall after placing 20th individually last year.
“He’s coming off a good track year, and he’s done some more training this summer, so we really expect to see some good things from him,” Matt Seeley said.
Polson also expects contributions from seniors Zach Evertz and Landon Shipley — a swimming standout who has impressed since picking up running about a year ago — and junior Jonah Ducharme.
Ducharme ran more than 400 miles over a 10-week span this summer, and Seeley said he expects to see much improvement on the course this fall, as a result.
“He’s worked really hard, and you can just see the difference in his running already, even in just the first few days of practice,” Seeley said.
A mix of two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman will compete throughout the fall for the remaining spots on an experienced varsity boys team that has its sights set on a top 5 finish at state.
“It’s kind of unknown until we start to get them running and competing in some races to see how they’ll line up, but it’s always fun when you have a team and you’re not sure what order they’ll be in,” Seeley said. “They’ll probably move around and change as they go through (the season), so that’ll be exciting to watch.”
Five of six Libby girls who competed in the state meet last year should return in 2017.
The Loggers were led in 2016 by Lauren Thorstenson, a now-junior who earned all-state honors with a 13th-place finish at state.
Seniors Sidney Stevenson and Maryssa Sanderson and juniors Kyla Cady and Mikalyn Zeiler also are likely to return for Libby, which placed 12th in the state meet as a team.
The Logger boys, who finished 16th, must replace their only all-state runner, Colin Maloney.
Senior Michael Diller and junior Tim Goodman, along with sophomore John Cheroske, are among the top runners who should return in 2017.
The Bigfork girls dominated the top of Class B last season, taking the top two spots at the state tournament.
Senior Bryn Morley looks to continue her family’s run of titles this fall. Bryn won her first last season after older sister Makena, now at the University of Colorado, won the previous four.
“She’s in a lot better shape this year, because she was coming off a stress fracture a year ago,” Bigfork coach Sue Loeffler said. “She’s going to do really well.”
Junior Anya Young is also back after a second place finish last season, finishing a minute ahead of the field, and junior Alicia Kalenak creates a trio of all-state returners after her 11th place finish last season.
While the Valkyries clearly packed tight at the top last season, Manhattan was able to take the title with a closer fourth and fifth finishers, something Bigfork looks to improve upon this fall to win its second title in three years.
“We have some younger kids who haven’t done it before, but they’re working really hard and doing really good,” Loeffler said.
“We’ve got to see what we’ve got in our fourth, fifth and sixth runners to see if we can push (Manhattan).”
The Vikings aren’t as top heavy as the girls, but will have a few bright spots looking to contend for all-state positions.
Sophomore Anton Young is the top returner, finishing in 46th last season, and junior Kalvin Eaton, 51st.