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MISSOULA — Missoula Hellgate’s Elise Stearns kept getting stopped on her way from the bleachers that served as a podium to the team’s tent at the state cross country meet.

The senior was carrying the Class AA state trophy, proof of the Knights’ conquest as they ended Bozeman’s 11-year streak as champion and became the first AA school in Missoula to win a girls cross country state title.

Hellgate didn’t just beat the Hawks, the Knights dominated with a 37-57 victory on Saturday at the University of Montana Golf Course. They had five runners place in the top 14 to earn all-state honors, and they put all seven of their runners in the top 17, while Bozeman’s fourth finisher was 18th.

“It felt like four years of work just finally coming together,” Stearns said. “I just could look at all my teammates, and this is what we all really wanted. The night before, we were just so freaked out, and our coaches were talking to us, like, ‘Second isn’t bad,’ but we all knew what we wanted. When we finally got it and how much we got it by, it was really exciting.”

The Knights had been steadily improving as a program each of the past four seasons to get to this point. The group of current seniors placed fourth as freshmen, third as sophomores and second last year.

The breakthrough came earlier this season, when the Knights became the first team to beat Bozeman at full strength in 11 years. They did it again at the Mountain West Classic with a 1-point win, but the third time was the one that counted, giving them the state title.

“It’s pretty cool to see that progression, that commitment to the team from them,” Hellgate head coach Anders Brooker said. “This group of seniors, we never had a group this committed early on, from their freshman year, just wanting to be great individually but also always seeing the big picture and wanting to do great things for their teammates. That’s what separates them.”

It’s hard to underestimate the impact of transfer Ember Stratton, who was the team’s top runner and took third place at state. She was the No. 2 high school runner in the nation as a sophomore in Portland, missed most of last year with injuries and continued improving in her return this year as her family moved back to Missoula.

Stearns was the Knights’ second finisher, taking fifth place overall. It was her highest finish after placing 11th and 16th the previous two years.

“Up on the front end, I was a little freaked out because we weren’t beating our Bozeman counterparts,” Stearns said. “I didn’t realize how well we were doing on the back end, so when I finally finished my race and saw all the girls come in, I just didn’t care how I did. I was just so excited to see everyone come in. Everyone’s worked so hard for it, and that’s why I was kind of rattled because I thought I was losing it for the team. It was the scariest thing of my life.”

The Helena High girls placed fourth, with 116 points, led by Kylie Hartnett, who finished seventh with a PR of 18:36.97. Hartnett's time also lowered her own school freshman record by three seconds.

She was followed by Rylie Schoenfeld in 19th and Jasmine Wilkerson at 20th, who also posted PRs of 19:29.50 and 19:31.31, respectively. Teammates Kylee Wetzel and Katelyn McKay placed 29th and 41st. Schoenfeld and Wetzel are also just freshmen.

"The girls really ran smart races," said HHS head coach Linda Paull, whose harriers posted their highest finish in her 12-years at the helm.

Emma Rohrer-Fitzhugh finished 40th for the CHS girls, with a 20:25.28, ahead of McKinlee Mihelish (49th) and Zoey Wall (54th). Capital came in 12th at 276.

Bozeman was led by junior Terra Trom in second, junior Alex Moore in fourth and sophomore Riley Moore in 10th. The others who counted toward the team score were sophomore Grace Gilbreth in 18th and sophomore Natalie McCormick in 23rd.

“One of our key girls was battling a hip injury, so we knew that was going to play into it a little bit,” Bozeman third-year head coach Casey Jermyn said. “One of our other top girls just had a tough day. We had some great performances, but we had some girls that didn’t run where they should have been.

“Hellgate put together a heck of a race on all fronts. They had some girls that had some breakthrough races. Hats off to them. They’re a phenomenal team. We knew it was going to be a battle, and it bounced their way today. We’re a little disappointed on our end, but we’ll bounce back for regionals.”

Senior’s Vladic victorious again

Billing Senior’s Tiahna Vladic captured her second state title in three years, doing it in dominant fashion.

She crossed the finish line in 17:40.71, finishing 22.79 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.

“This one was a little bit bittersweet,” Vladic said. “It was definitely different competition, different race strategy. I was out here most of the race just trying to beat my own time and running by myself. Two years ago, I was with Annie Hill, and we were together most of the time. It was definitely a different race, but I’m still grateful for it and still happy with it.”

Vladic ran her first mile at her usual pace, taking a nine-second lead. She started separating herself more, using a strategy she developed over the years winning the Mountain West Classic, the site of this year’s state meet.

“I was really nervous,” Vladic said of how she felt heading into the race. “I think I was more nervous than I was in the past years, which is kind of crazy because I was confident but I was still super nervous. It’s bittersweet leaving it all out there. I’m happy with how it ended and just pushed through it the whole race.”

Class A

Polson’s Frissell repeats

Polson senior Beatrix Frissell won her second consecutive state title, breaking her own Class A 5K record in the process.

“It means a whole lot to me when I think about all the work I’ve put into it,” Frissell said while wearing sunglasses. “I think that’s for sure the most important thing, just thinking back to all the summer miles and all the miles during the season. It all coming to this is really amazing.”

Frissell finished in 19:02.57, cruising to victory by 21.02 seconds over Hamilton’s Brynnli Poulsen. She had been dealing with a small cold for a few weeks that was still affecting her Saturday, but that couldn’t stop her.

“Last year, I felt like I had quite a bit of girls around me and I had a third-place finish my sophomore year, so I didn’t really have everybody looking at me,” Frissell said. “This year, it was a bit scary because I felt like everybody was looking at me. That definitely made me nervous, but I also felt confident heading into it for sure. I put in a lot of training this year, so that helps.”

Hardin 3-peats

Hardin won its third consecutive state title, edging out Whitefish, 56-73.

“Every title was different and meant something different,” Hardin head coach Cindy Farmer said. “When you get that first one, that means everything. Then you keep working, and we got that second one. This was probably the toughest one for us, more mentally than anything else. They came through. All year, they were a steady pack. They’re there for each other. They love to run. They trust each other and are there for each other.”

Hardin placed three girls in the top nine. Sophomore Khylah Two Leggins was third, sophomore Libby Nedens was fifth and sophomore Marion Hugs was ninth. Junior Journey Erickson placed 16th, and junior Ivery Fritzler was 23rd.

“All year, the expectations were there that they were going to three-peat,” Farmer said. “We had a couple of our runners in the top five last year that got hurt, so we had other people step into those roles and they did an amazing job. The depth and the determination just prevailed.”

Class B

Stolte leads local contingent

Spearheaded by Emma Stolte's all-state performance, the Townsend girls brought home the program's first-ever state trophy with a third-place finish. The Lady Bulldogs tallied 116 points, with Stolte, just a freshman, clocking a 20:03.97 to place sixth.

Rounding out the team's scorers were Sarah Christensen (21:44.62) in 24th, Bailey Taves (21:45.23) in 25th, Olivia Lynn (22:22.13) in 35th and Macy Bauman (22:36.41) placing 40th.

Jefferson High's top runners was Grace Alexander in 42nd place.

Colstrip’s Hanson sprints to win

Colstrip senior Whitney Hanson closed out her short two-year stint in cross country with her first state title.

She needed a strong sprint to the finish to do win in what was the closest girls’ race of the day. Hanson finished in 19:31.23, beating out Huntley Project freshman Natalie Lile by 6.16 seconds.

“I was just thinking, ‘It’s my senior year, and I got to do it and do it for my team but do it for my senior year, too.’” Hanson said of her mindset down the final stretch.

Hanson was fourth last year in her first year of cross country, which she took up when she quit basketball. Her track coaches convinced her to join cross country, bringing over her talents from middle-distance track events.

“This wasn’t initially in my plans,” Hanson said of winning a state title in cross country. “Last year, I was new and trying it out. This year, it was my goal to win state.”

Manhattan 3-peats

Manhattan won its third consecutive state title and fourth in five years, doing it with a largely new-look team after graduating nine seniors and returning just two runners who had competed in a high school cross country race.

“Just the buy-in, this team, I don’t remember ever having a smarter group of girls, a more coachable group of girls, a more motivated group of girls just top to bottom,” Manhattan head coach John Sillitti said. “They were super inexperienced, but the team, from the beginning, bought in top to bottom.”

Junior Jodi Cameron finished fifth, freshman Saige Duffin was ninth and junior Jessa Steele was 14th to ern all-state honors. Sophomore Hallie Hemenway, a transfer who had never run cross country before, was 17th, and junior Pralie Duffin, who left volleyball for cross country, was 28th.

“We had some injuries and our girl that finished first had been our third,” Sillitti said. “Our top two had some struggles today, but the team was just so great with the way they improved. They’re so new to it and a completely different team. No seniors on the team, so they’ll be back to build on it next year.”

Class C

Seeley-Swan’s freshman phenom

Seeley-Swan freshman Sariah Maughan won a state title in her first attempt, and she did it without much training because her focus in the fall was playing volleyball.

“I think if I trained more for cross country I could do way better instead of just training for volleyball,” Maughan said. “I do the volleyball practices and then I just run home, which is about a mile, two miles, between there, and there’s a hill that I run up next to the high school.”

Maughan finished the race in a personal-record time of 19:52.89. She beat out two former state champions in West Yellowstone’s Averi Parker, who was second in 20:18.27, and Darby’s Gracie Lang, who was third in 20:42.50. Maughan’s strategy was to pace Parker in the first mile and then go for the lead.

“My mom, earlier this week, she was like, ‘OK, you have to stay positive, you have to be thinking that you can do it and then you just have to run your best race,’” Maughan said. “I’ve been struggling with my hips because I’ve been growing a lot, so the muscle is really tight. It didn’t hurt today, and so I was really lucky that it didn’t hurt.”

Maughan and her teammates ran with “Addy Boo” written on their arms in memory of Addy Trevino, a 3-year old from Seeley Lake who died from terminal brain cancer on Thursday after fighting for a year and a half.

West Yellowstone repeats

West Yellowstone captured its second consecutive state title and third in five years since launching the program in 2014.

“This was our goal from last year,” West Yellowstone head coach Amy Freed said. “We have such a strong team, and they work so hard. It’s extremely exhilarating. On that start line, we were extremely nervous wanting to compete. We were paying attention to the points and everything and what people were doing all season long and trying to keep track of where we needed to be, so we worked towards that goal.”

West Yellowstone placed three runners in the top five. Defending champ Averi Parker, a junior, took second, sophomore Abigail Jackson was fourth and junior Julia Everest was fifth.

With just the top three individuals counting towards the team score, West Yellowstone eased its way to an 11-45 win over Centerville.

“Today, we were mainly worried about placing because we wanted to stay as state champs and keep our title and defend that as much as we could today,” Freed said. “We accomplished that goal, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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