Mikenna Ells ran to the scoreboard to see if it was true, if Whitefish High School had pulled ahead enough to win a state title.
It was the last event of the day at the Class A State track and field meet in Laurel last Saturday, the 4x400 relay, which Whitefish won.
The scoreboard confirmed it. Whitefish had 82 points, enough for its first state title in 35 years. Ells ran back to hug her teammates, most of whom were seniors.
“Once we won, I was just jumping up and down,” Ells said.
Whitefish beat Dillon, the defending state champion widely considered a favorite, by 20 points and Corvallis by 29, both teams that had beaten Whitefish the week before at Western A Divisional, where the Bulldogs finished third.
“In a sense we were the hunter, we weren’t the hunted,” Whitefish girls coach Derek Schulz said. “We were going after other teams. We knew what we wanted to do. These girls love track and field and so this was their time to shine. The conditions were ideal and we got some outstanding performances from individuals, from relay teams and the team as a whole, too.”
On Thursday, Whitefish celebrated the athletes’ accomplishment with a parade that ran through Depot Park and down Central Avenue. People came out of shops and bars to clap and wave to the group, who held their championship plaque high and beamed with pride.
“Everyone was waving at us, it was so cool,” Whitefish senior Kennedy Grove said.
“These girls have big smiles on their faces,” Schulz said. “When you do something in a town like this that is a supportive community, it’s a real source of pride for them and they deserve every bit of it. For the community and for the school, it’s just a really neat thing and it’s something that these girls can take with them forever. It was a fantastic feeling to watch them succeed like that.”
Schulz has been involved with Whitefish track for 23 years and has spent 12 of those overseeing the girls program.
Ells, a sophomore, won an individual state title in the 400, placed third in the 800 and tied for seventh in high jump. She was also part of the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams that won state titles. She and teammates Lauren Schulz, Grove and Emily Gunlikson, all seniors, each sported their state medals with pride as they mingled outside the school following the parade. Gunlikson also placed fourth in the pole vault. Lauren Schulz placed fourth in the 100, second in the 200 and was second to Ells in the 400.
“They do not give away state titles,” coach Schulz said. “You have to earn it, you have to work for it and then you have to perform to get it and all three of those things came together for them. These girls will have this memory for their whole life. That’s the important part.”
Lauren Schulz, Ells, Grove and Gunlikson were on the 4x100 relay together.
All four girls said it still hasn’t sunk in yet.
“I think I’m still in shock,” Gunlikson said. “We got third at divisionals, to come back and win it at state is really impressive especially after 35 years of Whitefish High School girls track never winning. I don’t think it’s really set in yet.”
As it turns out, Whitefish was already far enough ahead in team points to win by the time the 4x400 relay rolled around, but the athletes didn’t know that.
“By the time we had the last relay to run, the very last event, none of us totally knew if we were going to win or not so we were kind of just sitting there like, ‘maybe if we make the podium we’ll win’ but we had no idea,” Gunlikson said. “Everyone else in the stands, they had already done the calculating.”
Those down on the track were the last to discover that the Bulldogs were going home with a state title.
“It was me and one other senior (Gunlikson) on that team, so we were both in shock,” Lauren, coach Schulz’s daughter, said. “It was awesome though, because it’s been four years of really hard work for this track team and we’ve always been pretty successful but never really expected a team title out of it, which was awesome.”
“Nobody was expecting it ... it was all just like ‘Whoa, this is the best way to end my senior year,’” Grove said.
The last Whitefish track and field team prior to this year that won a state title was the boys team in 1997, which ended a 39-year championship drought. The girls team hadn’t won since 1984.
“Those are big gaps, so it’s kind of neat to change the conversation,” coach Schulz said. “Whitefish track is back.”