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State A cross country: Hamilton boys repeat as champs by wide margin; Columbia Falls girls win first-ever team title

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MISSOULA — The Hamilton Broncs have a problem you don’t mind having.

The defending Class A boys champs came into the state meet with one of the most loaded groups of runners in the state, regardless of classification. The trio of seniors, Colter Purcell, Lane Cole and Colter Kirkland, traded wins all season as they competed with each other more often than other teams, and were a part of last season's title-winning squad.

Oh, and some of them helped Hamilton win the 2019 state track and field team title.

The three had three of the top eight times in Class A. Getting them to compete more as a team, rather than focusing on besting each other, was a genuine challenge for longtime Broncs coach Mark Albert.

“One of the biggest challenges, honestly, is we have three guys on the same team that can win it,” he said. “I always joke with them, I say, ‘You guys love each other and you want each other to do well but not too well.’ That’s the trickiest thing. … These three boys traded all year long and were all our No. 1 at one point, and were our No. 3 at one point. That is the biggest challenge, keeping them focused on winning a team title and also being happy for each other.

“They embraced that really well and that’s not easy.”

In the end, the star-studded trio came together as a group and led the Broncs to a team win. On the big stage, the Broncs came away with the team title by a dominant margin, one of the highest you’ll see as they beat second-place Hardin, 38-83.

But, despite the dominant finish with three runners in the top five, a fourth at eight and their No. 5 at 19th to propel them to a second team title in a row, the Broncs didn’t have the individual winner after all.

That went to Brinson Wyche out of Corvallis, which as a team took third. Wyche had his own stellar day with a time of 16:25.98, finishing nine seconds ahead of runner-up Purcell.

“Brinson Wyche just tore it up,” Albert said. “At the first meet of the year at Corvallis, a lot of our guys beat him and he never looked back after that and I am very happy for him. But at the same time we still have three guys who could win it. With a mile to go they were closing on him and then he made a move and it was over.”

Wyche knew who he was going up against.

He understood the talent over at Hamilton and had seen them plenty of times at races this season and he admitted there was pressure to compete. He came into the meet with the top time in Class A, above the Hamilton trio and other contenders.

Instead of shying away, he took the pressure and embraced it. He fed off it.

“I really fed off the pressure and made sure I used it to run my best,” he said. “Honestly I really didn’t think much about the competition. I thought about the fact that I needed to be No. 1, I needed to win and was looking for the fastest time I could get.”

Wildkats sweep

Make it a new team champion, and a new individual champion, atop the Class A girls.

Columbia Falls, a year after finishing second to Laurel at the 2020 state meet, narrowly beat Corvallis to win the 2021 Class A girls team title, 92-99. The Wildkats were led to their first-ever team title by a strong finish from senior Hannah Sempf, who won the individual title with a mark of 20:03.40.

“It’s been a goal of ours for the last few years and hearing it was just amazing,” she said.

Unlike last season, when Columbia Falls placed two runners in the top five then didn’t have a finisher until 20th, 21st and 22nd place, the Wildkats weren’t as top heavy. It took a bit for more Columbia Falls runners to cross the finish line after Sempf with the next not coming across for over an entire minute.

But the Wildkats crossed in bunches with Courtney Hoener in 18th, Siri Erickson in 20th, Julie Martin at 21st and then a bit of a break before their No. 5 runner Marissa Schaeffer crossed the finish line in 32nd.

Columbia Falls ran what head coach Jay Peacock called a smart race. He said it simply: everyone did their jobs.

The Wildkats have built over the years for this moment, and were close last year at snapping Hardin’s run of titles. Columbia Falls didn’t end up being the team to make that happen, that was Laurel instead, and were happy then with a second-place team finish — the best for the program at the time.

But there is something special about breaking through for the first time as a school.

“For some of these guys its been three or four years getting to this point,” Peacock said. “Last year these guys really wanted the state title and it was really close with Laurel. … We were thrilled with second and thrilled with what we did but the girls wanted this title. There’s a lot of miles on a lot of legs; a lot of comradery; a lot of building; a lot of focus. Like any state title, it didn’t take anybody doing anything more than what they’ve done all year. Every single one of them had to do their job.”

Sempf embodied what Peacock spoke about. She didn’t run a flashy race nor did she win by a wide margin, beating second-place finisher Kiara Lion Heart from Browning by just under four seconds.

She ran a smart race. She had a steady pace and didn’t get too high or too low throughout the competition.

“What people don’t know is, she is an amazing athlete,” Peacock said. “If she were a sprinter in track, she would be an all-state sprinter. If she was a distance runner in track, she would be all-state. She is a pole vaulter and she is an all-state pole vaulter. She is a very good and deceptive athlete. She is strong and ran a very smart race.”

Lance Hartzler covers Griz men's basketball and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter at @lance_hartz or shoot him an email at Lance.Hartzler@406mtsports.com.

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