Stronger Together

Columbia Falls boasts some of the fastest cross country runners in the state, but it’s the Wildcats’ depth that sets them apart

By Andy Viano
From left, Bailey Sjostrom, Joe Lamb, Seth Umbriaco, Jimmy James Petersen, Thienhoa Jacobi, James Role and Aidan Jarvis of the Columbia Falls High School cross country team pose for a portrait at Columbia Falls High School on Sept. 26, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

These are heady times to be a cross country runner at Columbia Falls High School.

The Wildcats are the reigning state champions, taking home the hardware in 2018 despite being led by three sophomores and a junior, and the team is arguably even stronger this year. What’s more, the Wildcats are the standard-bearers for boys sports at the school this fall since the football team is undergoing a rebuild and the soccer program is operating in the shadow of a behemoth in Whitefish.

Still, cross country runners are not the prototypical in-school celebrities, especially this bunch. They are slim and silly, with pink headbands, wild hair and goofy traditions like their annual celebration of International Take Your Mustache for a Run Day, a holiday that seems to have roots nowhere but in Columbia Falls (it’s Sept. 20, by the way, if you’re marking your calendar for next year). They relish their coach’s relentless positivity and shrug off any intimation that intra-squad competitiveness creates internal conflict, even with a roster that includes at least four potential all-state runners.

No, these boys insist, the most important thing is the Columbia Falls team, and so far this season the Wildcats have been exceptional. They’ve finished as the top Class A team at all but two races in 2019, and as they round into top form ahead of the Oct. 26 state meet, a repeat championship is within their reach thanks, they say, to their teammates.

“It comes down to the obligation you have to each other to do your best,” junior Aidan Jarvis, the team’s top finisher in all but one race this year, said. “You’re not out there running for yourself … It’s, ‘Can I do the best I can for my team so my team does well.’”

Those words will no doubt put a smile on the face of Head Coach Jim Peacock, who summed up his team’s philosophy before the season in similar fashion, saying, “The better the team does, the better the individual does. The better the individual does, the more individuals benefit from the team.”

“Running is such a painful, agonizing thing to put yourself through,” he continued. “In a race experience, you’re motivated to run harder and put yourself through more … if you feel like you’re running for someone.”

Peacock won the Class A Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year award last season, and the longtime boys and girls coach at Columbia Falls has created a strong program year-in and year-out that is built on more than just teamwork. His three rules, his runners say, are “have fun, improve, and have fun.”

“After every race, as opposed to asking what could have gone better,” junior Bailey Sjostrom said, “he’s always focused on the positive, like what did you do (well)? What are you happy about in this race and what can you take on to the next race?”

Joe Lamb of Columbia Falls High School finished eighth at the Kalispell Invitational at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell on Sept 14, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Peacock’s sunny motivational tactics are not lost on senior Joe Lamb, who was third in the state a year ago with a blistering 5K time of 16:42.20. Lamb has run behind Jarvis most of this year but still owns the ninth-fastest time in Class A (16:43.93) in 2019 and is a serious threat to once again crack the top five at state.

“Positive motivation makes it easier and more enjoyable for us to work hard,” Lamb said. “If (Peacock)’s asking us what we did right, what we’re doing good, and he’s telling us we’re doing a good job, it makes us want to keep getting better and continue to blow away expectations.”

Jarvis has done more expectation busting than any of the Wildcats. As a sophomore, he was 20th at the state meet, far from disappointing but only fourth-best among his teammates. Then came the track season, when Jarvis delivered an exceptional sophomore campaign. He was ninth in the 1,600 meters at state and sixth in the 3,200, both tops on the Wildcats, and in cross country this fall, Jarvis has been a regular in the lead pack. He won the Libby Invitational on Aug. 31 and has four other top-four placements, at the Mike Reynolds Time Trials in Cut Bank (second), Flathead Invitational at Rebecca Farm (third), Thompson Falls Invitational (fourth) and Whitefish Classic (second). He has run under 16:30 twice, including a 16:15.89 in Cut Bank, the second-fastest time in Class A this year.

The only runner faster than Jarvis has been Lewistown senior Sam Fulbright, who is the favorite to win the individual state title, and he and his teammates pose the biggest threat to Columbia Falls’ dreams of a repeat. The Golden Eagles finished ahead of the Wildcats at the Great Falls Invitational at Eagle Falls Golf Course — the site of this year’s state meet — and last weekend’s Mountain West Classic in Missoula. Lewistown is deep, too, and senior-laden, with a quartet of fourth-year runners in the running for top 12, all-state finishes.

The Columbia Falls core may be younger, but they don’t lack experience. Juniors James Role and Seth Umbriaco are both running well again after all-state efforts a year ago, and sophomore Jimmy James Petersen ran a personal-best 17:25.2 in Great Falls. Sjostrom holds down the sixth position — only the top five finishers’ placements count toward the team total at state — but even he has a pair of top-15 performances this year and has shaved nearly 15 seconds off his personal best. And senior T.J. Jacobi has risen to the varsity roster for the first time this year after making a big leap forward from his junior season.

“(The depth) is a big benefit,” Peacock said. “When you have one or two standout runners or you have a couple of guys who can’t train with each other, they sort out a pecking order and have a hard time challenging each other … Any one of them by themselves doesn’t do as well, but when they’re all out there it’s a lift for everybody.”

The Wildcats are usually identifiable by their position near the front of the field, but they stick out for a couple other reasons, too. All seven varsity runners have some variation of shaggy hair, since they believe an in-season haircut is bad luck, a superstition that is accompanied by the uncomfortable challenge of running with a face full of sweaty, bobbing hair. To solve that problem, the boys recruited the Columbia Falls girls team and junior Alyssa Blankenship, who went out and bought seven pink headbands for them, and the Wildcats now wear them with pride in competition.

And while a bunch of shaggy-haired runners with pink headbands, the occasional absurd mustache, and a coach driven to do nothing more than put a smile on their face might not be exactly what comes to mind when conjuring a mental image of a high school sports powerhouse, it’s a look that fits these speedy Wildcats to perfection.

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