“It’s been kind of an exhausting week,” Jesse Rumsey said on Friday, Oct. 16. “We had a meet, I’ve been setting up the course for state, we’ve been celebrating the JV runners…”
Rumsey is the head cross country coach for Flathead High School, which is helping host the state cross country meet at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell this week, a big undertaking, especially considering the alterations necessary to comply with Montana High School Association (MHSA) COVID-19 regulations.
“Unlike other sports where you just turn on the lights in the stadium, we have to measure the course, and have it mowed, flagged and marked off,” Rumsey said. “Then we have to get both days scheduled and deal with visitors’ passes.”
After a cross country season that limited the number of teams participating in a meet and the number of runners allowed on the starting line, the state meet will feature up to seven runners from all schools in every classification —up to 180 runners for Class B.
“We have the longest starting line ever,” Rumsey said. “Honestly [hosting] is a lot of work, but I don’t know, it might be to our advantage.”
There will certainly be an advantage for Flathead and the Glacier Wolfpack in knowing every meter of the Rebecca Farm course. Due to a MHSA restriction that prevented teams from crossing the Continental Divide to race during the season, defending champion Bozeman hasn’t set foot on the course this year. Flathead has raced there three separate times.
That might be just enough of an edge to help Flathead onto the podium for the second time under Rumsey’s guidance.
Flathead High School won the first girls team championship when cross country was introduced in Montana in 1971. The Bravettes also won the next year.
The school has a vaunted reputation in the MHSA cross country archives. Until last year, the Braves and Bravettes had combined for the most Class AA titles in state history, 26. Bozeman surpassed Flathead in last year’s sweep of the state meet to give the school 27.
The Bravettes still have the most Class AA team titles with 15, and the second most in state history to Glasgow’s 16.
Rumsey ran for Flathead in the late 1980s under legendary coach Paul Jorgensen, the winngingest coach in state history. She was the fifth runner for the Bravettes at the 1989 state meet, helping the team win its fourth consecutive championship.
Rumsey began coaching in Colorado, where she spent five years as the track and cross country coach at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. When the Kalispell schools split in 2007, she returned to her alma mater to teach and ended up assisting Jorgensen.
After seven years as an assistant coach, Rumsey assumed the head role for the girls program in 2014.
In her first year in charge of the women, the Bravettes ran to a podium finish at the state meet for the first time in more than a decade.
“I was a little apprehensive at first,” Rumsey said about taking over the girls team. “With boys you can be harder on them, but I really enjoyed stepping into the challenge of wrapping my mind around the female mindset of competition.”
Rumsey’s teams have been remarkably consistent during her tenure. Other than a fluke in 2016, the Bravettes have finished in the top five every year. Even more important than consistent results, Rumsey has worked to create a team culture based on integrity and a passion for the sport, an approach that has stayed strong even through a pandemic.
“I like to think of this program as a village,” Rumsey said. “It’s been a challenge this year having to cut some team bonding, and there’s been less interacting face to face with parents.”
Like Mother, Like Daughter
The Bravettes are a young team and only lost one runner from last year’s state squad, putting them in a good position to improve on last year’s fourth place finish.
“Anyone can look at the results and recognize it’s going to be a push for us and Helena High to get on the podium,” Rumsey said.
Based on a hypothetical matchup of all the teams in the state, Flathead, Helena and Billings West will be vying for the third spot on the podium — the three teams are separated by just five points, with Helena and Flathead tied — behind perennial powerhouses Bozeman and Hellgate.
In addition to knowing the state course better than their competitors, the Bravettes are bolstered by a pair of freshmen additions to the varsity squad, Mikenna Conan and Rumsey’s daughter, Lilli Rumsey Eash.
Eash grew up playing soccer as well as running until her eighth-grade year, when she decided to focus on cross country. She was undefeated during her season that year, and once the spring track season was suspended, she began doing some workouts under the direction of her mother.
“It was really the first opportunity I’ve had to coach her one on one,” Rumsey said. “She’s a really coachable kid and she’s just really found a passion for it, which is exciting for me because I’m passionate about it, too.”
Back in August, Rumsey knew her daughter could be a top runner on the team and would be fast, but she wasn’t sure how fast.
So far, Eash has won four of the seven races she’s run, and has a personal best time on a 5-kilometer course of 19 minutes, 14 seconds. She’s the fastest freshman west of the Continental Divide, and the third fastest statewide.
“I’ve been pretty surprised with how I’ve been doing,” Eash said. “I’ve just been having a lot of fun with my teammates — they’ve been so welcoming and it’s made school a lot of fun.”
When Eash lines up at state, she’ll be toe to toe with other members of her “little family:” all-state finisher Tori Noland-Gillespie; sophomores Madelaine Jellison, Nora Iams and Neila Lyngholm; and junior Kya Wood. The Bravettes will be putting an “awesome summer of training” to the final test.
Flathead has largely avoided any COVID-related disruptions of training over the season, and Rumsey has seen her runners achieve a new level of maturity and competitive mindset.
“At this point, the work’s been done, so I’m taking a laid-back approach to this week,” Rumsey said. “The girls have known all season, have known for years, that we’re right on the cusp.”