Keeping With Tradition, Flathead Fields Strong Distance Squads

By Beacon Staff

In Dan Hodge’s 35 years as head coach of Flathead High School’s boys track team, the Braves have won six state championships, finished second seven times and placed at least fifth every year but three. They have also won 15 divisional crowns.

While the Braves have become accustomed to winning state championships, it wasn’t always so. After claiming their first state track title way back in 1907, the Braves didn’t win another until 1995, a nine-decade drought.

The Braves won again in 1996 and then rattled off four straight Class AA track championships from 2000-2003, led by some of the greatest long-distance runners this state has ever seen, including David Vidal and Seth Watkins.

In 2001, Vidal posted the fastest times in Montana history in two long-distance events, breaking the all-class records in the 1,600 (4:13.29) and the 3,200 (9:12.14). Vidal broke the 1,600-meter record at the state meet in Great Falls and the 3,200-meter record at the Libby Invitational. That same year at the Class AA state meet, teammate Seth Watkins broke the meet record with a time of 9:16.18.

Flathead might not have the top-to-bottom depth of its past title teams this year, but its strong long-distance core has shades of those teams of the early 2000s. Led by seniors Jesse Bennett and Leif Castren, the Braves should again have one of the top distance crews in the state.

At last year’s Class AA state meet, Bennett won the 800 meters with a time of 1:56.65, finishing more than two full seconds ahead of Kaleob Palmer of Butte. Bennett also finished second in the 1,600 with a time of 4:29.98. Castren placed second in the 3,200 (9:56.25) and third in the 1,600 (4:31.26). As a team, the Braves finished fifth.

Flathead’s girls, the most successful track program in Montana, are looking to get back into championship form. The Bravettes have won more state track championships than any other school in Montana with 18 titles. The next closest is Class B Harlowton with 10. Billings West has the second most Class AA titles with six.

In 1969, the first year girls track became an official high school sport in Montana, the Bravettes won the state championship. They went on to win three in a row. Then they won three in a row again from 1977-1979 and five consecutive from 1991-1995.

Like the boys, the Bravettes have several athletes whose names appear throughout the state’s record books. Mary Lalum helped set the tone for the program by winning three straight long-jump titles from 1969-1971 and Lexie Miller still holds the Class AA long jump record, set in 1979.

Later on, Zoe Nelson emerged as one of the top distance runners in state history, winning three straight championships in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters from 2003-2005. Nelson holds the all-class record for the 1,600, running a 4:55.04 at a dual meet with Libby in 2004. She also has the 3,200-meter record at 10:26.18, set at the state meet in Missoula in 2004.

The Bravettes won 12 titles under head coach Joe McKay, from 1977-1999. Kirtlye Lohof was on McKay’s last two championship teams. Now she is in her third year as head coach of the Bravettes.

Lohof believes the Bravettes have the talent to improve upon last year’s eighth-place state finish. Her team is young, with only six seniors, but it has a number of girls who can make some noise at the Class AA level, she said. Flathead’s last Class AA title was 2005.

Leading the way among the talented underclassmen is sophomore Tess Brenneman. Last year, Brenneman placed in the top five in four events, a rare achievement for a freshman. Brenneman finished second in the long jump, second in the 400, third in the 100 and fourth in the 200.

Lohof has a solid distance squad returning this season, including letter winners Paige Bouma, Sierra Maxwell and Bailey Hughes. And though there are only six seniors on the team, Lohof said they are a talented group of leaders. Also, Lohof is excited to see what her athletic class of freshmen can do.

“We have some stellar freshmen,” Lohof said.

Flathead High School’s boys and girls track teams kick off the 2010 season in Great Falls against C.M. Russell on April 10.

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