Flathead Valley’s Long-Distance Dynasty

With special inspiration and a legend in the midst, state cross country comes to Kalispell

By Dillon Tabish
Neil Eliason watches as the Bigfork girls are awarded medals at the state cross country championships at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell on Oct. 22, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Tucked in the crowd near the finish line of last weekend’s state cross country meet, wearing a blue poncho and a well-worn cap that read “Bigfork Track Team,” Neil Eliason scribbled on a small notepad. As each local runner streamed past, he marked their place. When the first race was over, he tallied the numbers in his head. He was happy to see that Bigfork would be bringing home a trophy.

There was plenty to be happy about on Oct. 22 as the skies cleared and the rain halted, ushering in a fine day for the first Montana cross country championship meet in Kalispell’s history.

The spirit of competition among more than 100 schools and 1,100 competitors from across Big Sky Country shined bright, as did a sports tradition with a rich history in this valley.

Eliason — known as the godfather of girls track in Montana for establishing a pioneering program in Kalispell in the early 1960s — also organized the first girls cross country state meet back in the fall of 1965, a year after boys cross country was formed.

Now in his mid-80s, Eliason still enjoys attending local track and cross country meets and seeing the sport flourish.

“It’s doing well,” he said at last weekend’s state meet. “It was always my favorite sport. They didn’t have it when I was in high school and living on a ranch. I lived six miles from town. I could’ve run back and forth.”

Kalispell’s meet was unique for another reason, too. Instead of taking place on a golf course like previous state meets, the course navigated the grass and hill features at Rebecca Farm west of Kalispell, a world-class equestrian site.

“This is a real cross country course,” Eliason said.

»»» Click here to view a photo gallery from the state cross country meet

Flathead High School staff, including longtime coach Dan Hodge and activities director Bryce Wilson and others, spent hours putting together the course and preparing for the meet.

“They did an excellent job of getting it ready. We’re glad that it went off so well,” Paul Jorgensen, Flathead’s longtime boys cross country coach, said.

“We wanted to organize a first-class event. We wanted to make sure that it was well done.”

Morley Claims Class B Title, Bigfork Girls Take Second

Bryn Morley accomplished a triumphant defense of her Class B cross country championship only five months after a stress fracture in her leg sidelined her from running for nearly two months.

The speedy junior, with only two previous races under her belt this fall and the words “Just Run” scrawled on the backs of her legs, cruised to victory in 17:53.

The individual victory gave Morley her second consecutive Class B title and marked the sixth year in a row that a Morley earned gold. Morley’s older sister, Makena, won four titles from 2011-2014.

Morley’s teammate, Anya Young, finished second in 18:56 and the top two individual places propelled the Bigfork girls to a second-place finish as a team. Alicia Kalenak placed 11th, 19:57.95, Haile Norred was 31st, 21:08, and Xiaoxiao Strong was 38th, 21:36.63. The Valkyries tallied 83 points. Manhattan won the team trophy with 67 points. Colstrip was third, 164.

Bigfork and Manhattan have developed quite the friendly rivalry in recent years. Last year Bigfork unseated the Class B champs of Manhattan for the team trophy. This summer, Manhattan runners and coaches heard that their Western Montana rival was needing to raise funds for the program and traveled across the state to participate in the annual fundraiser race in Bigfork.

Bigfork wanted to reciprocate the nice gesture, so the team hosted Manhattan the night before the state meet for a spaghetti dinner at the school. The competitors found themselves sitting next to each other like friends.

“That’s a skill I think kids need to learn – you can be friends and still get out and compete, like they did,” Bigfork head coach Sue Loeffler, who ran under Eliason at Flathead Valley Community College, said.

“They ran so awesome. I told them to leave everything out on the field and that’s exactly what they did.”

Lincoln County tallied 164 points as well led by seventh-place Tyann Totten, 19:48. Teammate Mckay Guckenberg was ninth, 19:49. Libby’s Lauren Thorstenson finished 13th, 20:02.

In the Class B boys race, Libby’s Colin Maloney placed 10th, 16:51.42.

Glacier Boys Claim Third Place

With three runners in the top 16 and special inspiration, Glacier’s boys team placed third with 101 points. Elijah Boyd placed 13th, 15:52.17, Tevyn Stetson was 14th, 15:52.91, and Brock Adkins was 16th, 16:00.87. Simon Hill placed 26th, 16:18.27, and Joseph Vanden Bos was 32nd, 16:24.53.

Flathead’s Ben Perrin placed 12th, 15:46.61, and the Braves finished sixth with 188 points.

Both teams ran with special inspiration this season. Flathead dedicated its season to Brad Treat, a former champion distance runner at Flathead in the 1990s who was killed by a grizzly bear while mountain biking this summer. Flathead made shirts that said, “Dedicated in Memory of Brad Treat.” Jorgensen shared stories with his team of Treat’s well-known graciousness and competitive spirit and the team ran with him in mind all season, Jorgensen said.

At Glacier, boys and girls wrote Treat’s Forest Service call sign — “FS 44” — on their legs for the state meet.

“He was a legend of the Flathead Valley. It was a good way to pay homage,” Glacier head coach Jacob Deitz said.

Tiahna Vladic, a speedy sophomore from Billings Senior, captured the Class AA state championship, running 16:40.74. Vladic jumped out ahead with two-time state champ Annie Hill of Glacier and the pair finished their first mile in 5:06. They were step for step until the final quarter mile, when Vladic kicked into gear while Hill stalled down the stretch. Hill placed seventh, 17:36.65.

The Bozeman girls, with five runners in the top 15, tallied 47 points and won their ninth state title in a row. Billings Senior was second with 62 and Missoula Hellgate was third, 88.

Glacier placed fourth as a team with 146.

Flathead’s Kaitlin Wride placed 13th individually, 18:05.31, and the Bravettes took 10th as a team.

Chase Equall of Bozeman set a new Class AA state record, surpassing a 23-year-old mark. The senior runner clocked 14:40.74, breaking the record of 14:41.0 set by Jorn Grimsley of Billings Skyview in 1993. The Hawks tallied 30 points and won their ninth consecutive title. Billings Senior placed second with 97.

Whitefish Girls, Columbia Falls’ Peacock Finish Second

With two runners in the top 15, the Whitefish girls brought home a second-place team trophy.

Ella Greenberg placed 12th, 19:28.90, Braya Hobson was 13th, 19:29.07, and Whitefish tallied 97 points to place just six points behind state champion Hardin.

Josephine Vardell placed 22th for Whitefish, Jessica Henson was 23rd, 20:12.58, and Katie Arterburn was 27th, 20:27.71.

“They ran lights out,” head coach Richard Menicke said. “We had a good blend of senior leaders who just carried the traditions and expectations of those traditions.”

Kimberly Peacock, a freshman from Columbia Falls, held her own for three miles and placed second as an individual, 18:30.96, and led the Wildkats to a fourth-place team finish with 138 points.

“It was a really good experience racing with those older, faster girls,” she said. “It pushes you to go harder and faster.”

Beatrix Frissell of Polson placed third, 18:49.24, and the Lady Pirates placed fifth as a team. Molly Sitter was 14th, 19:28.59.

In the Class A boys race, Columbia Falls’ Sage Wanner placed 10th, 16:14.50.

Frenchtown won the team title with 66 points and Corvallis placed second with 72. Fergus was third with 102.

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