MISSOULA — Montana track and field coach Brian Schweyen had quite the goal for Sterling Reneau when he saw his senior wandering around the track at Dornblaser Field on Saturday during the Big Sky Conference outdoor track and field championships.
Not only did Schweyen challenge Reneau to help get the Griz the win in the 1,600-meter relay, but he added that they could possibly break the school record. Reneau, who failed to qualify for the finals of the 400-meter dash on Friday, flashed his coach a smile before walking away.
Hours later, Reneau flashed his speed on the track, running a thrilling third leg to regain the lead and help lift the Griz to a memorable victory after a rally down the stretch by Montana’s final runner. The remarkable performance gave Montana the gold medal, broke the school and facility records, and elevated the Griz to a third-place finish as a team.
“I had all of Missoula behind me. It wasn’t just me running that race,” Reneau said. “And so it was leave everything I had on this track. And that’s what happened.”
Reneau entered the third leg in third place after Paul and Cade Johnstone, a pair of Forsyth grads, handled the first half of the relay. Having run at Dornblaser Field since he was 8 years old, Reneau knew when he had to make his move. He passed the two runners ahead of him on the back stretch and brought the baton to Xavier Melice with the lead heading into the final leg.
Reneau's performance was the culmination of years of work while battling injuries and running for his dad, Paul Reneau, the Grizzlies’ sprints and relay coach. Not only did he pull off a stunning performance at the conference championships, but the Missoula Sentinel grad did it in front of his hometown crowd.
“Wow, it was exciting,” Schweyen said. “When Sterling made that move, I was like, ‘There’s the old Sterling.’”
While Reneau provided the heavy lifting, it was up to Melice, a Helena Capital grad, to close the deal. Melice had the lead heading into the final leg but quickly fell behind. He focused on keeping pace and decided halfway through the final turn that he’d make his move when he reached the straightaway.
The anticipation of a win grew when Melice moved into first place, but he tried to refrain from getting too excited as he neared the finish line and couldn’t sense a runner on top of him. When Melice crossed the finish line, the timer read 3 minutes, 9.69 seconds — the 79th-best time in Division I — and in another few seconds he was getting mobbed by his teammates.
“When my teammates rushed over to me, I’ve never had a feeling like that before,” Melice said. “It’s indescribable. It’s unbelievable. I love my team, my coaches, our trainers and everybody. I definitely picked the right place to come. I’m happy for three more years after this.”
Not only did the Griz break the school and facility records to win the conference title, but they did it with a team of Montana natives. And three of the four were freshmen.
“That just goes to show you the talent and the heart and the desire of that group. Incredible,” Schweyen said. “You got to give Paul Reneau credit for getting those boys in order.”
Melice, who was sidelined most of last season with a leg injury, also took second in the 200-meter dash and fourth in the 400-meter dash.
“The kid’s a freak,” said Reneau, who helped the Griz take fourth in the 400-meter relay earlier in the day.
“He was the stud of the meet,” Schweyen added.
Montana senior Jensen Lillquist provided the only other podium finish for the Griz men on Saturday when he took second in the javelin throw. It was the fourth all-conference finish for Lillquist, who won the javelin title in 2016 and 2018, and finished third in 2015.
Jensen, who’s been battling a back injury since March, set a personal record on his final throw, tossing the javelin 232 feet, 5 inches. While it topped his previous best by six feet and ranks 11th in the NCAA West Region, the mark still wasn’t enough to lift him past Southern Utah’s Skyler Porcaro, who won with a throw of 234 feet, 9 inches.
“I would have liked to win, obviously, but Skyler hit a monster throw, so I’m happy to hit a PR,” Jensen said. “That’s the best that you can ask for. Every single throw, there was more there. The adjustments that I was making throughout have more potential. If I have a shorter block and a longer arm, there’s 10, 15 more feet there. That’s what I’m thinking about now for regionals.”
MSU’s Schneider repeats
Montana State sophomore Drake Schneider timed his leaned as he prepared to cross the finish line, tumbled to the ground in the lane to his right and stayed down for 19 seconds.
Schneider was unsure if he had repeated as the Big Sky Conference champion in the 400-meter hurdles, but he knew he had given it his all after trailing with one hurdle to clear. When he saw his time, the difference between first and second place was the slimmest of margins, and Schneider was the victor by 0.01 seconds on Saturday at Dornblaser Field.
“I knew it was going to come down to who had the better last hurdle because if I stuttered that one or didn’t hit it right, I knew I’d lose a lot of ground,” Schneider said. “And then at the end, honestly, I didn’t know that I had won. It was that close, and it was a great race. We both put down some awesome times for both of us.”
Schneider broke the school record with his finish in 51.27 seconds. He beat out Southern Utah senior Devon Montgomery, who finished in 51.28 seconds, and fourth-place finisher Mack Baxter of Idaho, both of whom have been regional qualifiers in the past.
Despite being the defending champ, Schneider was still nervous coming into the race.
“I think running from the front with a big target on your back is the scariest thing because you’re expected to win and you know everybody is looking at you to be the one to get beat,” Schneider said. “So, I was really nervous. I knew it was going to be tough with him and Mack Baxter because they both have gone to regionals before in this event and they’re both really good hurdlers. I was nervous, but I also had to come in with some confidence because I was the defending champ, so you can’t come in too scared.”
The win also had another special meaning for Schneider. It was the first time he beat his dad’s best college time of 51.44 seconds.
“For me right now, that’s a bigger deal that I get to say I’m finally faster than my dad,” Schneider said. “So, that’s a really proud moment for me.”
Montana State had two other men reach the podium. Wyatt Thompson-Siporen took second in the pole vault, and Derrick Olsen finished third in the 110-meter hurdles.
For Olsen, collegiate track has been a new venture this spring. The Helena High grad had played football at Rocky Mountain College for two years but left after the fall semester in hopes of trying out for the Bobcats football team during spring camp.
“I was doing nothing for like the first couple weeks that I was here. Just lifting and stuff,” Olsen said. “They didn’t want me to play football. So, I got bored of sitting in my room, so I tried out for the track team, and (sprints coach) Jay (Turner) gave me a shot, and that’s all I needed.”
Olsen has only been with the track team since the meet before the indoor championships in February. He ran the 110 hurdles just three times before the outdoor championships and ended up recording the fourth-best time in program history when he ran a 14.32 to take third place.
“Man, it’s incredible,” Olsen said. “I’ve been running on my hurt hamstring all week, had to wrap it up. A little uncomfortable. Just did nothing all week. Didn’t run. Didn’t do anything leading up to coming here. We got here the first day and I went over one hurdle, and (coach) said I was done. It’s a huge jump. Really excited to be here right now.”
Point scorers abound
Montana had eight individuals and one relay team who scored points on Saturday but didn't finish on the podium.
Melice was fourth in the 400 meters. The 400-meter relay team was fourth.
Callum Macnab placed fifth in the 400-meter hurdles. Brent Yeakey was fifth in the shot put.
Noah Adams took sixth in the 800-meter run. Charlie Bush was sixth in the pole vault. Dylan Kipp took sixth in the javelin. Alex Mustard was sixth in the 100 meters.
Noah Ramirez was seventh in the shot put.
Brendan Thurber-Blaser was eighth in the javelin.
Montana State had three individuals and two relay teams who scored points but didn't make it to the podium.
Luke Middelstadt was fourth in the pole vault.
Alex Lewis tied for sixth in the triple jump. Henry Adams was sixth in the 110 hurdles.
The 400 relay team and the 1,600 relay team were both seventh.
Notes: Southern Utah's Aidan Reed, a Helena High grad, placed second in the 5,000-meter run. He time of 14 minutes, 50.06 seconds was 6.2 seconds behind Northern Arizona junior Tyler Day, who came in with the top time in all of Division I.