On a recent overcast Thursday afternoon, the Columbia Falls cross country team loaded up into a school bus and headed up the North Fork Road.
Despite the pouring rain and cold temperatures that had runners pulling on tights and hoodies before disembarking, the athletes were in high spirits.
“We were all just laughing and singing songs all the way there and back,” senior Siri Erickson said. “It’s days like that I love the most. I know when I think back on the years I ran cross country, I’m not going to think about the racing. I’ll remember those runs.”
Erickson’s sentiments are echoed by her teammates, as well as Jim Peacock, longtime coach of the Wildkats.
“Cross country kids are fun and silly by nature,” Peacock said. “We have three main program goals: one, have fun; two, approach each day as a way to get better as a person and an athlete; and three, have fun. It’s easy to spend time on goal number two if one and three are always happening.”
The Wildkats are certainly a fun-loving team. They are also one of the best girls cross country teams in Montana’s Class A in recent years. In 2019, the team finished third at the Montana High School Association state meet. In 2020, running in several inches of snow on a course in Kalispell, they improved to second, tying the program’s best finish.
Last year, the Wildkats won the program’s first state championship, while Hannah Sempf won the individual title.
A year later, even after graduating two scoring seniors, the Wildkats look to be a team even better than last year’s champions.
Earlier in September, on the bus ride home from the Mountain West Classic in Missoula, Peacock rescored the invitational meet, removing all but the Class A teams from the huge field. The calculations show the Wildkats in a tight race for the podium against perennial Class A powerhouses Hardin and Corvallis, who combine for nine of the last 11 state titles.
That’s not the exciting thing for Peacock, however. If you take the girls’ times from Mountain West, and plug them into last year’s state meet, run on the same course with end-of-season fitness, they blow their 2021 iterations out of the water.
“To see this team improve, even after reaching what could be considered the pinnacle, a state championship, is an amazing feeling,” Peacock said. “It’s neat to know you’ve got that caliber team. Most teams would be happy to have just one of our varsity girls as their top runner.”
“Our overarching program goal is certainly to be in the conversation for earning hardware,” he added, noting that the Hardin girls team could go down as the best in Class A history. “But I’ll be honest, I don’t have those conversations with the team.”
The team has taken Peacock’s philosophy to heart and doesn’t spend much time dwelling on outcome goals.
“It’s definitely a goal to place on the podium, somewhere in the back of our minds,” senior Courtney Hoerner said. “But overall I think we try our hardest to just live in the moment. We attack each week with drive and its own goals instead of picturing those future races.”
“Every single day everyone shows up and is so excited and energetic,” Hoerner added. “That’s definitely why I do cross country. It’s just the little things each day that have turned into support and friendships with these people over the years.”
Erickson describes Peacock’s approach to coaching as grounded in positivity and gratitude.
“He teaches us about the importance of being grateful that we have working bodies that can actually run and compete,” Erickson said. “That kind of positive energy and light-hearted approach to coaching really lets us know that we can feel fulfilled in practice and racing no mater what happens.”
Erickson has run the third-fastest time by a Class A runner this year, and although she knows she’s in the conversation for individual champion honors, she isn’t focusing on that final race.
“I don’t get caught up in the results,” she said. “Instead, I just want to soak in every moment I can with my team and enjoy the memories I’m making as I run these courses for the last time.”
While back-to-back state championships would be an exciting first for the team, Peacock will derive the most satisfaction in witnessing the improvements his athletes show from the start of their running careers to the end — and not just as runners.
“I take a lot of pride in who these kids are, how they approach life,” he said. “Sure, there’s lots of pride in their successes, but even more in their progress.”
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