It’s not often that an All-state athlete just falls into your lap as a high school head coach, but in the case of the Helena High cross country team and Odessa Zentz, that’s exactly what happened.
Zentz, who was a standout for the Bengals track team last spring, winning Class AA state championships in both the girls 400 and 800-meter runs, decided this fall to join cross country instead of participating in soccer as she did last season.
And for head coach Linda Paull, to say the addition of Zentz is welcome, well, that’s an understatement.
“That was certainly a nice surprise,” Paull said. “I didn’t have anything to do with that but we are glad that she decided to join cross country. She will fit in really well with this group that we have returning from last season.”
Of course, just because Paull wasn’t part of convincing Zentz doesn’t mean the sophomore wasn’t persuaded.
Kylie Hartnett, who also ran track and placed third in the 1,600 and 3,200 for Helena High and happens to be friends with Zentz, was one that pushed her in that direction.
“I thought that being in cross country would help me in track,” Zentz said. “I thought it would help me build that deep endurance and I like to challenge myself more.”
“My friends helped convince me too,” Zentz added. “(Kylie) especially.”
While Hartnett doesn’t have two individual state titles to her name, her resume is impressive considering she’s a sophomore. She was the top runner at state for the Bengals a season ago, posting a time of 18:36.97 and finishing seventh overall.
“Her and I both like to do our best and be the best we can be,” Hartnett said of her and Zentz. “And in cross country, you don’t have to rely on anyone else. It's all up to you."
Harnett was also joined at state by three other true freshmen last season in Rylie Schoenfeld, Kylee Wetzel and Breanna Brewer, who will each return this season to give coach Paull five sophomores on her varsity squad which also includes Tatum McNamara, Riley Thennis and Alyssa Plant.
“That was the biggest freshmen group that we have ever had,” Paull said. “And they have stuck with it. They work hard and they have big goals.”
In addition to being All-State in track, Hartnett earned All-State honors for her cross country performance too and with Zentz by her side, she is hoping to help the Bengals earn a Class AA state trophy, something her team finished one spot short of doing last season.
“That would be really cool,” Hartnett said finishing in the top three at state. “We have really been pushing each other and this year, I think we are ready for it. We just have to keep pushing until we achieve it.”
The Bengals will get their first test Friday afternoon in Billings as both Helena High and Helena Capital teams will race for the first time. The first meet is always sort of a time trial for teams, but the Bengals are looking to make a statement early.
“The scoring is going to be a little different this year,” Paull said. “But we got second last season and we want to go down and be the best team down there this year. I am not sure how they are going to score it but we can still see how our team did and that’s what important.”
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Helena Capital girls
Joining the Bengals in Billings this week will be crosstown rival Helena Capital led by first-year head coach Anna Doran, who was an assistant at Helena High last season.
“I work at Helena Capital, so coaching over there has been nice,” Doran said. “So far things have gone well. The girls have worked really hard. I have been very impressed.”
Emma Rohrer-Fitzhugh is the top returner for the Bruins who finished 14th last season at state. McKinlee Mihelish, Zoey Wall and Ella Krumm are also back for Capital. Elli Doran, Emma Compton and Ella Shropshire are the others that will compete for varsity spots with a number of upperclassmen who came out for the first time.
“We have some juniors and seniors that came out for the first time and they have been impressive too,” Doran said. “We have some very good athletes and they are going to add a lot to the program.”
Helena High boys
On the boys side of things, Jonah Fisher returns to lead an experienced Bengals team that returns six of the seven runners it sent to state in Trystan Brewer, Clayton Ryerson, Kaden Jenkins, Sam Sullivan, Ethan Nelson and Nicholas Pida.
“We have a lot of experience coming back from last season,” Helena boys cross country coach Kelley Gilbert said. “So that will be our strength going into this year. Our experience.”
The Bengals finished eighth last season, something Gilbert said his team hoped to improve on in 2019.
“Our goal is to get back into the top half of teams,” he said. “That is where we are used to being and we would like to get back there.”
Helena Capital boys
Just like its crosstown rivals, Helena High, the Helena Capital boys cross country team also notched a top-10 finish at the state meet last season and under the direction of head coach Chris Beskid, the Bruins are hoping to build on that.
The squad returns three runners that have previous experience at state in Danny Leas, Carlin Onstad and Tyler Jost. Beskid also has a group of upperclassmen who will compete for time in Nick Mow, James Rencher and Nate Turner, as well as newcomers Wyatt Schneider and Quinton McElvain and freshmen Henry Ballinger and Brody Romano.
“The guys have diligently put in a lot of miles and hard work together this summer,” Beskid said. “And we're looking to continue the positive momentum from the end of last season and have our best race be the last race of the year.”
All four Helena are teams will open the season Friday in Billings at 12 p.m. The first home meet that also features all four teams will be Oct. 7 with the annual 7-on-7 Preview meet.