LAUREL — The power of positive thinking. That seemed to be a running theme, at least among winners Friday on the first day of the Class A state track and field meet at the Laurel Sports Complex.
With pretty much wide open possibilities – last season’s cancellation because of COVID-19 meant there was just one returning state champion on the boys side and four on the girls – many of the athletes were out to prove themselves, if not prove to themselves what they could do.
Whitefish’s Mikenna Ells was able to prove that 2019 was not a fluke. She won the 400 as a sophomore that year, and, after a two-hour weather delay held things up a bit on Friday, repeated with a win in the day’s final event in a stadium that had largely cleared out by that time.
That didn’t matter to Ells, who sprinted the first day to close with a time of 57.96, the first and only repeat champion from 2019.
“I was really excited for my junior year, and then, you know, COVID,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know, it’s been really exciting. I’m doing the 100 and 200 this year, so I think that’s helped push me to get faster times in the 400 and just learn how to pace out better.”
After the first day, Laurel’s girls stood in first with 54 points, followed by Whitefish (24.5) and Glendive (23). Hamilton’s boys led with 45 points, then came Billings Central (32) and Frenchtown (21).
Record day for Locos
It turned out to be quite a day for athletes from Laurel, who wound up setting three school records.
The first was Laurel sprinter Jakob Webinger, who notched a 10.88 time in the 100 trials, which broke the school mark of 10.90 set by Bran Dantic in 1979. A junior, Webinger has seemingly come out of nowhere this season and will run four finals for the Locomotives on Saturday.
But he’s already piled up points for his team, winning gold in Friday’s long jump with a leap of 20-9.25. Saturday, he’ll run the 100, 200 and legs on both relays, so it’ll be a busy day for him.
“I’d be bummed if I didn’t win them all tomorrow, but you know, I’ve had a good season,” he said. “I’ve worked hard and I’ve PR’ed a lot. You never know. One year you can be the worst on the team and the next year you can pop out and run record times.”
Laurel’s Carly Cook popped off the starting line for the girls 800 — it was the second start after a competitor fell before the first turn and the runners were called back from the first gun — and pretty much led start to finish.
Usually, Cook, who said after the race she was battling a migraine headache, has senior teammate Grace Timm to set the pace. Timm sets the pace, talks her through the race, and Cook provides the kick both runners need at the end.
But Cook, a sophomore, said she had so much adrenaline going that she burst out of the gate. And once she had the lead, she figured there was no point in letting up.
So she finished in a time of 2:19.28, breaking the school’s mark of 2:19.35 set by Jessica Elmer in 2016.
“I just led, I had no idea what I was doing,” Cook said with a quick laugh. “I just kept going, I didn’t slow down.”
Laurel’s boys 400-meter relay of Jack Waddell, Eli Aby, Beau Dantic and Webinger broke its own mark in the preliminaries, running 42.99.
Another McGree wins another title
Butte Central’s girls — Butte Central’s McGrees, to be exact — have a tight grip on the Class A girls long jump gold medal.
Rachel won state titles as a junior and then senior in 2016 and 2017, and sister Lindsay followed it up with long jump championships as a junior and then senior in 2018 and 2019.
Well, guess who hit junior status in 2021? That’s right, Rileigh McGree, who kept the family streak going by leaping 17-8.75 and winning the family’s fifth state long jump title in a row.
The McGrees father, Don, has been coach at Butte Central for 30 years, so “track is a huge thing in our family,” Rileigh said. She also said she didn’t feel pressure from her siblings to keep the streak alive.
“I knew that this was a thing and that I had a chance to keep that streak going, but I never felt pressure that I had to do that,” Rileigh said. “My dad just told me that’s something cool that could happen, but don’t feel pressure to make that happen.”
Of course, we know what that means for 2022, right?
“Gonna have to do it one more time, I guess,” Rileigh said with a laugh.
A true newcomer
McGree’s Butte Central teammate, Ella Moodry, made her first state appearance memorable.
Moodry, a freshman, made her first throw in the javelin count, hurling it 125-10. That distance held up, too, and she won the state title, though she admittedly entered the event feeling like an “underdog.”
She hadn’t performed well at divisionals the week before, and estimated her confidence level was about 50%.
“It’s very, very surreal,” Moodry said about her title. “There’s no way to describe it. (The first throw) just felt right. I was calm and collected, it just felt right.”
‘Happy tears’ for Ronan jumper
Ronan senior high jumper Lindsey Brooks entered the meet as the third-ranked qualifier in the event, but in previous years at state she had yet to place. In fact, she said, she barely qualified.
She wound up with gold Friday, winning the high jump with a leap of 5 feet, two inches.
As her event went on, she couldn’t help telling herself each jump was going to be her last. Instead, it was she who was the last one jumping.
“I didn’t even know my abilities” coming into the season, she said. “I was really struggling my sophomore year. But when I qualified (this year), I was like, ‘OK, I’m a competitor. I can do this.’”
When the two-day meet wraps up on Saturday, Brooks will return home a state champion. There was no time for tears right after her event, but Brooks said they may flow on the long bus ride home as she ponders what she accomplished.
“They’re going to be happy tears, though,” she said. “I mean, I’ve done the best I can do. I’m really proud of myself.”
Hamilton’s running duo
Two years ago, as a freshman, Hamilton distance runner Colter Kirkland watched Laurel standout Levi Taylor on this same track tear it up in his events and wondered “how can you run that fast?”
A series of injuries — first an Achilles and now shin splints — slowed Kirkland’s own progress toward mimicking Taylor. But the junior ran a 1:56.85 800 meters on Friday, taking the lead from Browning’s Jeremy Bockus on the back stretch and then out-racing teammate Lane Cole for the win.
“A couple weeks ago if you’d have told me I won state, I’d say, ‘no way,’ “ said Kirkland, his shins heavily taped. “It’s unbelievable. To be able to come back from injury, I thought I was done with.”
Later in the day, Cole got his own gold medal, winning the 3,200 in a time of 9:49.00. On the bell lap, Corvallis’ Brinson Wyche picked up speed and began to put Cole behind him. Though Cole and Wyche haven’t raced much in the 3,200, Cole knew that was Wyche’s MO.
The key, Cole thought, was to stay calm, don’t let Wyche get too far in front, and then reel him in. Which Cole did, sprinting at least the final 200 meters for the win.
“I was chasing my first state championship because at cross country I could have placed a little higher, got 11th, which isn’t bad,” Cole said. “Then today I kind of got outkicked the last 150 (meters) in that 800, so, I just thought I’d get one today.”
Getting it started
Livingston pole vaulter Carter Bartz was the first to win gold, winning it on Thursday night with a height of 13-6. Bartz, who trained during the missed season by vaulting in a converted warehourse, entered state with a comfortable margin over the second-best qualifier.
And, with teammates continually razzing him that all season that he’d be a state champion, Bartz admitted feeling a little pressure. But, just like the qualifying heights indicated, he had little to worry about.
“It’s nice to have everyone behind me, helping me out,” he said Friday after he was awarded his medal. “And, honestly, the pressure helps me out, just making me perform my best.”
Bartz, a junior, set a PR this season of 14-6, easily breaking a school record that had stood since 1967, he said. That means he’s got bigger goals for next season.
“I want to break the state record next year,” Bartz said. “That’s my goal.”
Whitefish junior grows into a champion
Whitefish thrower Talon Holmquist threw more than 48 feet in his first meet this season and was in “first place for like a day,” he joked. Another shot putter quickly overtook him, and he’s been chasing that spot ever since.
He got it, throwing 49-5 on his first throw of the day Friday, and that wound up being the winning distance.
Like just about everyone else, it’d been two years between competitions for Holmquist, a junior. But in that time, he’d grown nearly five inches to 6-5 and put on 35 pounds. He remembered as a freshman thinking how big the other shot putters were; now he’s the big guy, with a year to defend a title.
“It feels good, there were a lot of nerves,” he said of winning gold. “It’s a big stage. But after the first throw I calmed down a little bit and got it in.”
‘Family’ comes first for Lewistown’s Zimmer
Yes, Lewistown's Kylie Zimmer was looking forward to 2020. As a sophomore in 2019, Zimmer had finished second in both the discus and shot put, and would have been the returning favorite to win both events her junior season.
Zimmer, of course, never got that chance. But not winning isn’t what she missed most last season’s missed opportunity.
“I really just missed the family aspect of track,” Zimmer said, after she finally captured her first gold medal with a throw of 43-8.5 in the shot put. “All the throwers, we get along so well. All the friends I made (competing with) I didn’t get to see, some graduated …
“You know, I just missed that, that ‘home’ feeling of every track meet, it was so exciting to see each other and to get to compete.”
Zimmer will get one last chance to compete in Saturday’s discus.
Lara Erickson entered the state meet with the top qualifying times in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200. She chose not to run in Friday’s 800 to save her legs for the 3,200.
That paid dividends, as the Columbia Falls senior won going away. Her time of 11:28.30 was nearly 22 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, her happened to be her sister, sophomore Siri.
For her part, Lara liked talking about her sister as much as her own win.
“It’s really amazing,” Lara said about the 1-2 finish. “She works so hard and I’m just really proud of all she does. She’s just a sophomore, so she has a few more years left in her. She’s a lot further ahead than I was my sophomore year. She’s an amazing runner.”
Glendive senior teammates Tiana Carney and Madison Wahl had been going neck-and-neck all season in the pole vault, with Carney entering the state meet with Class A’s top height.
When the competition was over Friday, it was Wahl standing atop the podium, winning with a height of 10-6. Laurel’s Laney Leeds got between the Red Devils this time, finishing second, while Carney placed third (Leeds won the tiebreaker).
Wahl was more than happy to spread around the credit for her win.
“I guess I just owe it all to my teammates and my coaches,” Wahl said. “It feels pretty good to be a state champion but I wouldn't be anywhere without them. Winning this kind of takes me to college now. I’ll be pole vaulting at (Dickinson State) next year, and I’ve got a couple good coaches up there and I’m really excited to go.”
Hurts so good
Libby’s Jay Beagle descended the podium very slowly and very gingerly. The pain of winning the 400-meter dash was well worth it, however.
“Oh, yeah, it’s always a grueling one,” said Beagle, who won the 400 in a time of 49.38. “It makes your butt hurt, but I’m not throwing up right now, so that’s a bonus.”
Beagle took fourth in the 400 as a freshman and finished third as a sophomore. Even with the wiped out junior season, Beagle, who will compete for the University of Montana next year, looked back at all the hours of training it took to make his ascension on the podium.
“It’s reassuring, I guess, it’s nice to see that all your hard work pays off eventually,” he said. “So it’s just a good feeling right now. I can’t describe it.”
The meet concludes Saturday boys final events in the both relays, both hurdles, the 100, 200, and 1,600 races, javelin, triple jump and discus. Girls finals are similar, minus the javelin. Field events begin at 9 a.m. and the timed events start at 10 a.m.
Some of Friday’s medals weren’t handed out, including the boys high jump, which was won by Billings Central’s Derek Damjanovich (6-2). Those will be awarded Saturday morning.
Email Mike Scherting at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert