Nearly one mile into the snowy, cold 5K course at Eagle Falls Golf Club in Great Falls on Oct. 26, Simon Hill and Ian Curtis looked at each other and bumped fists.
The race was officially on.
The two seniors are “best of friends off the course and on the course” as Hill described them, and they are the top two distance runners in Montana this fall. On this day, two miles after the fist-bump and in the final cross country race of their high school careers, neither Hill nor Curtis could take control by himself, despite more than one push from Hill to try and do just that. Eventually the rest of the field disappeared behind them, but the front-running friends stayed practically glued together, running shoulder-to-shoulder as the race reached its final 50 or so meters.
Glacier High School’s Hill lagged behind Curtis (Missoula Hellgate) by a stride or two as they began to climb the course’s final hill, the last ascent before a short downhill sprint to the finish, and Hill’s coach, Jacob Deitz, had flashbacks to a race earlier this year. At the Coaches Invite on Sept. 5 in Missoula, the opening race of the cross country season, Curtis rushed past Hill in the closing meters to win by nearly seven seconds.
“They came up over the last hill shoulder-to-shoulder and, I’ll be honest, I was a little concerned,” Deitz said.
This time, though, Hill was not going to be denied.
“I was just telling myself I do not finish this course unless I finish first,” he said. “The only way I was going to leave that cross country course was with a state championship title.”
Trudging a narrow path through a snow-speckled closing stretch, Hill surged away from Curtis to cross the finish line first in 15:50.7, winning the Class AA state title, becoming only the second champion ever from Glacier High School and joining the pantheon of great Flathead Valley distance runners in the process.
Then he turned and gave Ian Curtis a hug on the medal stand.
“I cannot speak highly enough of (Curtis), he’s one of the best competitors you could ask for,” Hill said. “We both value the success of each other; it’s not about winning, it’s about being a successful runner.”
Of course, one of the byproducts of successful running is winning, and Hill has done plenty of that his senior year. After being out-kicked by Curtis on Sept. 5, Hill came back to win at Eagle Falls in a state preview of sorts on Sept. 20, then paced all Montana runners at the prestigious Mountain West Classic in late September. Weather canceled the annual Helena 7-on-7 meet earlier this month, so the next time the state’s top two harriers met on the course was back in Great Falls on Oct. 26.
Hill’s state title capped a steady if relatively quiet ascension to the top of the state’s largest, and fastest, classification for the slender, upbeat, blond-haired senior. Unlike his older sister, Annie, who won the state championship as a freshman and sophomore, Simon followed the more traditional path for boys distance runners, even the best of whom tend to rise slowly over their four-year careers. The last five Class AA boys champions have, in fact, been seniors, and no boy has repeated as a Class AA champion since at least 2002, the first year results are available on the Montana High School Association website.
Four years ago, Hill was 26th at the state meet and second fastest among all freshmen, certainly in position to one day challenge for a title but far from a sure thing. It wasn’t until 2018, when Hill surged to a second-place finish behind Flathead High School senior Ben Perrin, a placement and a time (15:55.8) that surprised even Hill, that an eventual state championship truly came into focus. The 2018 state meet marked Hill’s first time under 16 minutes in the 5K and, more than that, was an equally important psychological breakthrough.
“It was this huge moment of, ‘you know, it’s so worth it,’” he said. “That 15 minutes of pain is worth every minute after.”
Not long after enduring his 15 minutes of pain in Great Falls, Hill sought out the tight-knit family that traveled to watch him run, hugging and sharing tears with his dad, Micah, who has helped train and nurture the only two state champions Glacier High School has ever known (Micah Hill also moonlights as the school’s principal). Annie Hill, a two-time Gatorade Montana athlete of the year, is now running at the University of Colorado and she and her brother will be inexorably linked because of their individual achievements, adding the surname Hill to the modern Flathead Valley distance dynasties forged by the Perrins (Zach, Jake and Ben) and Morleys (Makena, Logan and Bryn). At least one runner from one of the Flathead Valley’s five MHSA high schools has won a state cross country title every year since 2011, accounting for 17 first-place finishes during that span.
More directly, though, Simon Hill’s win sets an example for what could be the next crop of state champions on his own team. Sophomore Sam Ells, who split time between the soccer and cross country teams this fall, finished 19th at the state meet, second-fastest among his classmates. And another two-sport athlete, freshman Tyler Avery, was the second-best freshman in the field (46th place) just three weeks after placing third at the state golf tournament.
“When they see one of their own do it, they realize that it’s attainable,” Deitz said of his budding young runners. “They know Simon; he’s a real person. They’ve seen what he’s done and that’s the thing that builds that tradition. We talk all the time about who’s going to step up and be the legend of tomorrow.”
Hill, meanwhile, still remembers the legends of yesterday. Like almost all of the Flathead Valley’s champion runners, he grew up in the sport as part of the venerable Highlander Track Club where he was coached by, among others, high school state champion and collegiate All-American Zach Perrin, who texted Hill to congratulate him after his win in Great Falls. Hill also cited Glacier alum Troy Fraley (Gonzaga) and Hellgate’s Adam Peterman (Colorado) as others who served as role models during his formative years.
“It’s a very strange feeling,” Hill said. “Whenever I see those guys I feel like I’m a little kid. It’s an indescribable feeling to know that I might be the one that kids are looking at right now.”
Hill has one more season of track and field in front of him before he begins a college career of his own at the University of Montana next fall as one of the first recruits signed by new Griz distance coach Clint May, the original architect of the Bozeman High School distance running dynasty. The Hawks won their 12th consecutive Class AA boys state championship on Oct. 26 by winning a tiebreaker over Hellgate, a title that would not have happened without Hill’s final kick.
The Columbia Falls boys have a long way to go before they approach anything resembling a Bozeman-type dynasty, but the Wildcats asserted themselves as the program to beat in Class A by winning a second consecutive state championship in Great Falls.
Staying on top, though, was anything but easy.
“There’s a lot of stress trying to repeat, you have a target on your back and you know you have some really good teams gunning for you,” Columbia Falls coach Jim Peacock said. “For me it was elation and smiles, but also just a sense of release from some of the stress and pressure of wanting it so bad for those kids.”
Like in 2018, Columbia Falls rose to the top of the leaderboard thanks to the depth of talent that included their five scoring runners and two strong alternates. The Wildcats were led at state by steady junior Aidan Jarvis, who was Columbia Falls’ top finisher for most of the season and crossed fourth in Great Falls, but the rest of the scoring lineup was a jumble of personal bests and selfless team-first runs.
Junior James Role and sophomore Jimmy James Petersen were seventh and 11th, respectively, with Role (16:49.9) running his fastest time of the year despite imperfect weather and footing, and Petersen (16:57.8) smashing his career best and breaking 17 minutes for the first time. Petersen took a major step forward throughout his sophomore year, shaving more than two-and-a-half minutes off his time from the beginning of the season and coming home with all-state honors.
Just as important, though, were the Wildcats’ top two returning runners from a year earlier. Joe Lamb (third) and Seth Umbriaco (fourth) were all-state in 2018 but did not contend for a title in Great Falls. Instead, they crossed in 21st (Lamb) and 22nd (Umbriaco), finishes that may not have lived up to their individual expectations but were vital for the team.
“I’ve been around cross country a long time,” Peacock said. “I’ve seen teams, and been on teams, where runners are disappointed and give up on a race and cost their team the team goal. And neither of these two kids ever put away the team goal.”
Lamb and Umbriaco were the final pieces that allowed the Wildcats to separate from second-place Hardin. The Bulldogs ran together in a pack through the early stages of the race and were in title-winning position before the more patient Columbia Falls runners made their moves. Jarvis and Role both finished one spot ahead of their Hardin counterparts, and the Bulldogs’ final three runners were 18th, 25th and 31st.
In the Class A girls race, Whitefish took home a trophy for the second year in a row, finishing third. Josephine Vardell was sixth to lead the way individually for the Bulldogs. Columbia Falls junior Lara Erickson also earned all-state honors, finishing 12th.
In Class B, Eureka gave Northwest Montana another team trophy with the Lions boys winning the school’s first state championship behind all-state finishers Isaac Reynolds (third), Chaidh Lochridge (7th) and Alex Lowe (14th).