It wasn’t just the last chance of the season to qualify for nationals for Gunnar Hilborn. It was the last chance of his college career.
Needing to make a mark of 15-1 in Great Falls last Thursday, the senior from Helena came through, vaulting to a new personal best at the magical mark at Memorial Stadium in Great Falls.
“There was definitely extra pressure just because that was the last meet,” Hilborn said. “It was my last chance to qualifier while repping Carroll. If I didn’t do it I was done.”
Hilborn came into the meet with momentum, having improved or matched personal bests in the previous two meets. Still, qualifying for nationals was uncertain until he flew over the bar.
“More than anything, it was just more myself just proving I can do it,” he said. “I knew I could do it for a while, but it was just a matter of linking it all up on the right day. It felt like the right day.”
Not a lot changed that week in practice. The Carroll vaulters had a few moderate practices and then a light lift. Hilborn said it was a mental breakthrough that ultimately secured his trip to Alabama.
This season, Hilborn has been pushed by sophomore vaulter Keaton Brady. Hilborn said Brady came to Carroll having vaulted 15-2 in high school and has a personal best of 15-5. Having Brady push him and having a teammate to feed off of pushed Hilborn to be his best. It’s a necessary component for Carroll’s track team, as often at meets the Saints are merely competing against each other anyway. A large chunk of the Frontier doesn’t put out track and field athletes like Carroll does.
“Having Keaton here, he pushes me a lot,” Hilborn said. “He came in as a freshman and he’s already going 15-2 in high school. He’s a multi. He’s a really athletic kid. Practice with him in general and vaulting with him really you find yourself pushed hard.”
Hilborn said when he entered the program, having the likes of Easton Padden, who won the first national championship in Saints track and field history, and Josh Seeberg as role models helped his drive to improve. The Helena High Bengal had been a senior captain and three-time letter winner while at HHS, but college track required more of him.
“They were far beyond my reach; I was always trying to keep up, but couldn’t quite do it,” Hilborn said.
The name Hilborn has been prominent this calendar year. His younger brother, Grayson, throws shot put and discus for the Bengals, with PRs of 36-7 and 128-9, respectively. Gunnar’s younger sister, Kamden, was named the Western Conference Player of the Year on the pitch for the Bengals. Then she helped the HHS girls to their first State title in basketball in 20 years, and was named the State AA Tournament MVP. Now, Kamden is starring in track and field, particularly in the pole vault.
“She’s a little busier than I was,” Hilborn joked. “She’s really good. It’s been fun to watch her come up after me.”
Hilborn’s father, Bryan, kicked for Carroll College in the '90s for two seasons, and holds the record for most field goals made in a game with six. Gunnar remembers eating at Applebee’s on Custer Ave. and seeing a picture of the Saints football team featuring his father plastered on the wall.
“It’s cool to rep that C after your dad did all those years ago,” he said.
Even then, Gunnar said coming to Carroll was less about following in his father’s footsteps -- though a meaningful footnote -- and more about the academic scholarship the school offered him.
The ends of that scholarship came last week when Hilborn walked at Carroll College’s graduation on Saturday.
“I’m glad to be done,” Hilborn said. “It’s kind of cool because it extends my career at Carroll in general. Carroll is not easy to attend and be a part of programs. It’s gratifying to be at Carroll and get a degree.”
Now, with his chemistry degree obtained, Hilborn has his sights set on nationals. His B-standard mark of 15-1 puts him in a nine-way tie for the 20th best mark in the nation. The best mark this season is Curtis Bell’s 17-foot vault.
Hilborn will see if he can break through once again next week.