HELENA — At the recent Class AA State Track & Field Meet in Kalispell, Helena High freshman Odessa Zentz captured state championships in the 400 and 800 meters.
In the process, she set two school records by becoming the first Helena girl to qualify for State in seven events in one season, and the first Bengals freshman to win two individual State track championships.
Zentz was among AA’s top-five scorers with 20¼ points (she was also part of Helena’s sixth-place 400 relay), and she is the program’s first 800 champion in 29 years. Julie Brown was the last to win the event in 1990.
And now, Zentz is the 2019 Independent Record Girls Track Athlete of the Year.
Helena coach Sheila Williams remarked prior to State that determination, competitive drive and fearlessness ranked high among Zentz’s strengths on the track.
Her seven State qualifications included the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,600, and the 400 and 1,600 relays.
Zentz’s 400 triumph in the finale was not unexpected since she hadn’t lost at that distance all year, while owning the fastest time in all four classes – AA, A, B and C – entering the State Meet.
Earlier at the crosstown meet versus Capital, she broke the 27-year old meet record with a time of 57.29.
She then capped off an undefeated MHSA season in the 400, garnering the crown at Legend’s Stadium in 57.75 and finishing one-and-a-half seconds ahead of runner-up Addi Eckstrom’s (Bozeman) at 59.35.
But the 800 was a different story.
Zentz went into the finals in Kalispell ranked No. 3 behind Bozeman junior Terra Trom and senior Tiahna Vladic of Billings Senior. Vladic was last year’s AA runner-up.
At the Great Falls Optimist Meet earlier this spring, Zentz took fourth in the 800 in 2:23.54 with Trom and Vladic placing 1-2. But as the season progressed, she kept improving and she warmed up for the final event with a Western AA championship in 2:16.88.
“I went into the state 800 race knowing that I actually had competition that would push me from the start to the end,” Zentz said. “I thought I would be much more nervous, because unlike the 400, I wasn’t the favorite. But the exact opposite happened. I was incredibly nervous for the 400, but not being the favorite in the 800 actually took some pressure off.
“I was debating on if I should lead the race, or pace behind either Vladic or Trom, but decided that I wanted to go out hard and lead the race. I had been doing that all season and decided changing my strategy wouldn’t be worth it.”
When the gun sounded for the 800 final, the Helena freshman jumped out in front of the pack. She proceeded to lead the race from wire-to-wire, holding off Trom down the stretch with a time of 2:14.25, a couple steps ahead of Trom's 2:15.01.
Zentz described coming through the first lap in around 64 seconds, which “felt comfortable for me, so I (think) if I didn’t lead, I wouldn’t have set myself up properly” for the time she wanted.
“I knew they were very experienced racers and talented runners, so I decided to take control of the race,” said Zentz, who lowered her PR by 2½ seconds. “All in all, I think the key to beating those two was to run a fast first lap by going through at a time that was within my comfort zone, and (that) might have been something new for them.
“I was hoping that they’d come through at 64 with me … and that allowed me to create a big enough space to hold Trom off.”
Her time gave her a sweep of the all-class (AA, A, B, C) fastest times this season in both the 400 and 800 runs.
Zentz finished No. 5 in the State Meet’s scoring behind Bozeman’s Delaney Bahn (40½ points), Sentinel’s Ashley McElmurry (36½), Vladic (24) and Sentinel’s Lauren Heggen (22½).