Off and Running

New faces emerge and familiar veterans return to the spotlight this cross country season, carrying forward the Flathead Valley’s proud distance running tradition

By Andy Viano
Flathead's Ben Perrin (center) leads the pack away from the starting line at the Flathead Invitational cross country race at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell on Sept. 7, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Jacob Dietz, the Glacier High School cross country and distance running coach, rattles off the names without hesitating on a warm, bright, not-too-smoky Sept 7 at Rebecca Farm after the annual Flathead Invitational.

“It’s that cool thing in the Flathead Valley where we just keep that bar up there,” he said. “Whether it’s the Perrins or Hills or Morleys or Fraleys, there’s always somebody at that level.”

Two of the all-time great distance runners, both from those elite families Deitz rattled off, graduated in the spring, but even without Glacier’s Annie Hill and Bigfork’s Bryn Morley suiting up for their respective schools it was evident at the invitational that there’s plenty of talent still running awfully quickly throughout Northwest Montana.

Flathead’s Ben Perrin blasted the field in the boys race and sophomore Tori Noland-Gillespie, also from Flathead, topped a strong field in the girls race, and that wasn’t all. At a meet that included more than 30 teams, all but two of the top five spots in the boys and girls varsity races went to runners from Flathead, Glacier, Whitefish and Bigfork high schools.

“That’s what’s special about the Flathead Valley,” Deitz said. “It just raises the bar, it just makes everybody better.”

Deitz’s Glacier boys finished second in the team competition behind Missoula Sentinel, but the top two Wolfpack runners claimed two of the top three places. Senior Aren Alexander-Battee (16:27.59) crossed the line second, albeit 36 seconds behind Perrin, and Simon Hill, Annie’s younger brother, was third (16:45.60). Sentinel runners were fourth, fifth, eighth, ninth and 10th.

Perrin, whose brother Zach was an All-American at the University of Colorado and whose other brother Jake is running at Gonzaga University, was untested in the 5K boys race, opening up a huge early margin and never slowing. The senior won the 3,200-meters at the state track and field meet last season after finishing sixth in the state in cross country.

“I’m think I’m actually close to being in the same shape I was last year,” Perrin said. “I trained a little bit harder this summer and I’m feeling good.”

Perrin’s time of 15:51.09 is nearly 30 seconds faster than the time he posted at last year’s state meet, and even then he was the top finisher among non-seniors. He enters this year among the favorites to win the state title, which would make it three titles for the family: Jake won in 2015, Zach in 2012.

The girls race had an even more Flathead Valley feel. The Bravettes won the team competition by 30 points and the top seven individual finishers were all from local schools. The victorious Noland-Gillespie was followed by Bigfork senior Anya Young, Glacier junior Kinzie Peterson, Whitefish junior Jessica Henson and Flathead senior Meaghan Fisher. Whitefish was among all teams and figures to be tough to beat at this year’s state meet in Class A, and Columbia Falls was fifth behind perennial Class A power Corvallis.

Noland-Gillespie has won both of the races she’s entered this season, beginning with the Cut Bank Invitational on Aug. 31, and she was the top-finishing freshman in Class AA at last year’s state meet, coming in 18th. The sophomore was humble after the race at Rebecca Farm, which she led from start to finish and won by nearly 19 seconds.

“I just went in wanting to potentially win, if not top 10 would be amazing,” she said. “That was the goal.”

Noland-Gillespie ran 19:40.46 at state last year, and her goals for this season are ambitious. She wants to post a time under 19 minutes, something that would have put her in the top six in 2017. She crossed the tape in 20:10.69 at the Flathead Invitational.

“I’m running about the same time that I finished at last year, which is good,” she said. “I have such an amazing team to work with, everyone pushes each other and we have such a good environment, so it’s really easy to work hard and train and I think that’s really paying off so far.”

Young has finished second at the Class B meet each of the last two seasons behind her former teammate, Morley, and if she does win the Class B title this season she will make it eight straight Class B state titles for a Bigfork runner following Bryn’s three and her older sister Makena’s four.

The next major meet on the cross country calendar comes Sept. 29 at Missoula’s Mountain West Invitational. The state meet will be Saturday, Oct. 20 at the University of Montana Golf Course in Missoula.

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