Spring is a time of renewed potential. It’s also a season of renewed pursuit for some of the state’s best high school athletes, many who compete in the Flathead Valley.
With a new season underway, several exciting plotlines are resuming for local teams and athletes. In a valley as historically talented as the Flathead, it’s hard to zero in on just one. There are sure to be new ones that emerge, too. But here’s a glimpse at 17 storylines worth following this spring.
Why 17? That’s how many events are in track and field. And, after all, Kalispell is one of Montana’s preeminent “Track Towns.”
Morley Continues Championship Stride
Bigfork’s Makena Morley has already won five state titles — three in track and two in cross country — and been named Montana’s Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year twice. And she’s only a sophomore. With her name etched in the fall season’s record book, she’s now pursuing some hallowed distance times on the track. As a freshman, she came within six seconds of two long-standing state records, in the 1,600 and 800.
Perrin and Fraley Hit Final Stretch
Flathead’s Zach Perrin and Glacier’s Troy Fraley have already made plans for after high school — Perrin will run at the University of Colorado and Fraley at Gonzaga University. What’s left is an exciting finish for two great prep careers. Perrin is the reigning 1,600 and 3,200 champ and Montana’s Gatorade Track Athlete of the Year. He came within four seconds of breaking both state records last spring. Fraley, already the most accomplished distance runner in Glacier’s history, was not far behind and placed third in both races.
Bates Still Unbeatable
Only three boys in state history have won four tennis state championships. Kellen Bates could become the fourth. The Glacier senior was undefeated yet again last season and claimed his third Class AA singles title. Only eight others have won three or more singles championships in any classification. Bates is on the verge of joining the short list of four-timers: Roger Mergerth from Missoula Sentinel (1951-54), Keithan Gregg of Cut Bank (2001-04) and Kyle Baltrusch of Havre (2002-05), according to the Montana High School Association.
It may seem benign, but the weather in Montana plays a huge factor in the spring. Not only are there limited opportunities — spring is the shortest of all three sports seasons — but also poor weather means hampering conditions for practices and competitions. Past years have seen snowfall in May, or heavy rainfall at state, which can dampen spirits and success. But so far, so good.
Bulldogs Fit For Contention
Whitefish senior Dakota Beatty embodied the underdog last spring, placing 18th the previous year and then winning the Class A state title in the 110 hurdles. Now Beatty returns as the top dog with several talented teammates, including senior Logan Harwood, who has placed third at state in the 400 the previous two years, and senior Jace Kalbfleisch, who placed fifth at state cross country in the fall.
Johnson Takes Flight
College volleyball is in her future, but Kwyn Johnson will be remembered in the record books for her jumping ability. The Flathead senior, who signed to spike at Arizona State University, leaped 38 feet, four and three-quarter inches to break the Class AA triple jump record and claim the state title in Butte last spring. She’s also an all-state hurdler.
The Polson Powerhouse
Polson is home to seven of the last 12 Class A softball state trophies, including the last three. This spring the Lady Pirates have some big shoes to fill after losing the likes of all-state infielder Ashley Johnson and last year’s state tournament MVP Riley Kenney. There’s also stiffer competition now that Frenchtown (two titles since 2005) has joined Northwestern A. But if anyone can successfully reload it’s the dynasty’s architect, 26th-year head coach Larry Smith.
Flathead’s Veteran Coaches
Just between Dan Hodge and Paul Jorgensen, Flathead track’s program has 81 years of coaching experience. Hodge has guided the Braves since 1972 and Jorgensen has coached the school’s distance runners since 1973. Since then Flathead has won 21 track state championships, the most of any one school in the state in that time span. When you include other long-time mentors who remain actively involved across Kalispell, like Jim Kola and Bill Epperly, it adds up to be a remarkable tribute to devoted coaching. Also in Bigfork, Sue Loeffler is one year shy of 40 as head track coach.
Gillespie Takes Over Bravettes Track Program
At the end of last season, Kirtlye Lohof stepped down as head coach of the Bravettes track program after five years. The school hired Tom Gillespie, who has served as the Flathead boys and girls hurdles coach in recent years. The Bravettes placed third last season, their best finish in six years. The program holds the distinction of being the most successful in state history with 18 championships since girls track was added in 1969.
New Coaches At the Helm
Along with Gillespie, several other local programs have new head coaches. Andy Fors was promoted from assistant to Glacier’s new softball skipper and will try to guide the Wolfpack back to the state tournament in Great Falls. Sue Corrigan takes over Flathead’s tennis program after being an assistant for four years.
The statewide qualifying standards have amplified the importance of every meet that is equipped with valid timing systems. Before recently, track and field athletes could only compete at state if they qualified at the divisional. But now all 17 events have established marks that, if surpassed, allow athletes in Class AA and A to earn automatic berths through regular-season competition. Class AA first implemented the standards a few years ago, and Class A added them last season. Discussions are taking place whether to include them for Class B, according to MHSA.
Glacier Netters Aim at Retaking Title
Despite three players placing in the top four at last year’s state tennis tournament, the Glacier girls came up one point shy of winning their third straight Class AA team title. Bozeman had the top two doubles teams and edged Glacier 30-29. Three all-state seniors are back leading the Pack. Katya Kulikova is the reigning state singles champ and has a combined record of 39-2 the past two seasons. Hailey Blalack returns after placing third last year along with Veronica Walton, who earned fourth. The Glacier boys could break through and contend for a title, too, after placing second last year and in the top three for three years running.
State Champs Host State Tourney
The conclusion of the Class AA state tennis season wasn’t the only nailbiter. In Class A, the Polson girls needed every last point to edge Hamilton for the championship. The Lady Pirates edged the Lady Broncs 35-34 to claim the program’s second title in school history, and first since 2008. If this season follows last year’s exciting storyline, it will be in front of hometown fans. Polson is hosting the Class A tournament, May 23-24.
Noteworthy Local Events
The Archie Roe Invitational track meet, slated for May 4, is in its 39th year at Kalispell’s Legends Stadium. Historically, Archie Roe has been one of the state’s most competitive showcases for track talent. The A.R.M. Invitational in Whitefish, celebrating its 15th year on April 27, has become a similar perennial highlight. Whitefish is also hosting the Northwestern A divisional meet, May 17-18. The Northern AA divisional tennis tournament is in Kalispell, May 9-10. Northwestern A is hosting its tennis divisional also in Kalispell, May 16-17. The Flathead and Glacier softball teams will square off April 18 at Kidsports Complex and May 9 at Conrad Complex. Whitefish and Columbia Falls face off on the softball diamond April 11 in Columbia Falls and May 3 in Whitefish. Eagle Bend Golf Club in Bigfork is hosting the Class B state golf tournament, May 20-22.
Ogden Lets it Fly
In a family full of standout football players, Todd Ogden has made a name for himself in another sport. The Glacier junior is the two-time defending Class AA javelin champion. Halfway through his high school career he’s already on the doorstep of history. According to MHSA record books, only one other male athlete in state history has won three javelin titles: Chip Young of Malta (1972-74). Ogden also was within reach — only nine feet last year — of Chris Reno’s state record set in 2005.
The Schulz Family’s Track Tradition
Whitefish native Derek Schulz has served as head track coach in his hometown the past 18 years. These last two springs have been especially memorable, though. His daughter Marlow has emerged as one of the best all-around runners in Montana. As a sophomore last year, she brought home an exceptional four Class A titles (100, 200, 400 and 400 relay), a runner-up medal (1,600 relay) and a fifth-place (triple jump). Add those with two other championships (100 and 800) and a second-place (400) as a freshman. Considering Marlow won’t be battling illness like last spring, her medal pile could grow even further this year.
Griffith’s Jumping Greatness
With impressive all-around athleticism, Glacier senior Kyle Griffith has succeeded nicely as a three-sport athlete throughout his prep career. But he’s achieved the most off his jumping ability. As a sophomore, Griffith won the Class AA triple jump championship and came within six inches of breaking the 40-year-old state record. As a junior, he won the long jump title and placed second in the triple. Senior year could see a combined greatness.
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