In 2012, Paden Alexander finished just 30 seconds behind the winner of the Class B Montana High School Association (MHSA) state cross country championships, becoming the highest placing, and fastest, runner in St. Ignatius High School history.
A mere decade later, Alexander is about to be washed from the record boards of the small school nestled against the base of the Mission Mountains. The Bulldogs cross country team boasts not one, but four runners who have bettered Alexander’s times in a cross country meet (adjusting for the 2017 shift from running three miles to a 5K), led by senior Andrew Rush.
“I figured eventually my records would be broken, but I didn’t think it would be this soon,” Alexander said. “I’ve already told [Andrew] that he’ll be better than I ever was even after leaving St. Ignatius.”
Rush is having a superb senior season. In eight meets, he has crossed the finish line alone in seven of them. The only meet he didn’t win was the Mountain West Classic in Missoula, which features top athletes from around the northwest. Rush finished seventh at the meet, running 15:55 for five kilometers, the fastest time by a non-Class AA Montanan.
In fact, in all of Class B there is only one runner who’s covered a cross country course quicker this season — Wolf Point junior Peyton Summers — but Rush isn’t worrying about the competition. His singular focus is on getting himself to the finish line as fast as possible.
“My mindset for state is to take the race out from the gun, lead the entire thing and drag everyone else along with me,” Rush said. “My plan is to separate myself and I don’t want anyone in sight when I cross the finish line. I want it to be a dominant win.”
Rush exudes a calm confidence after the thousands of miles worth of work he has put in to get to this point.
As a junior, Rush was already an emerging talent on Montana’s running scene. A solid season of cross country led to a high ranking in Class B midway through the season before disaster struck in the form of a fractured ankle.
“It was devastating for him,” St. Ignatius coach Chris Eichert said. “The team just wasn’t the same without him. We didn’t have the same atmosphere at state cross.”
Without Rush, the team finished 11th.
“It was really depressing,” Rush said. “It was so tough to end the season like that, and I became nervous that no one from a college would look at me without a good junior year.”
It was while watching his teammates at the state meet that Rush, and Eichert, realized that with no one on the team graduating that year, there was a chance to make a big push over the next 12 months.
“They made a pact right there,” Eichert said. “The team decided that we wanted to come back and win state.”
Following the track season Rush and his teammates started working on their goal to top the podium in cross country. Along with seniors Zoran LaFrombois and Thomas Nuila and sophomores Robbie Nuila and Harlon Leishman, the Bulldogs made a pact to run daily and build as much strength from daily mileage as possible over the summer, holding each other accountable through group texts and run-tracking apps. Rush ran between 50 and 60 miles each week, all summer.
“Our idea was when the season comes and we’re just running three miles in a race, we’ll have this strength in our legs and know how much work we’ve put in,” he said.
St. Ignatius has only won one MHSA state championship in the school’s history— basketball in 1956. The cross country team, which Eichert has led for seven years now, had never even won a divisional meet before this season.
“We’ve never even been super close to first before, and to win as dominantly as we did is just huge,” Eichert said. “The boys just have a confidence about them this year. Every meet they go in and say, ‘Coach, we’ve done the work, we’re going to get this done.’”
“It’s basically all or nothing — we could win this with a dominant performance or we could not,” Eichert said. “My deepest wish is for Andrew to win, and this team to win, because they’ve absolutely earned that.”
While his mind is set on Saturday, Rush is also thinking about next year, and his plan to run collegiately. He’s received several offers from different schools, but is leaning towards staying in state, with a goal to represent Montana at a national meet some day.
He’s been able to go on several runs with Alexander —the last St. Ignatius runner to compete in college — and pick his brain about the process and what it’s like to move to the next level.
“I’ve looked up to Paden since his name is on the record boards at the school,” Rush said. “Having somone from the same school, same town to talk to and run with is just so cool.”
Alexander still has one Mission Bulldogs shirt shoved in the back of his closet that he plans to wear to the state meet.
“I never really thought I’d see Mission trying for a state title,” he said. “I’ve been watching them evolve over the years since I ran there, and they’ve made such a huge jump. It’s going to be fun to see what happens.”
Whitefish High School assistant cross country coach Aldo Kuntz wore a decade old shirt to practice one day that said “State Champions 2012.”
“One of the runners saw it and said, ‘Coach, we need to get you a new shirt,’” Kuntz said. “I like that attitude.”
Head coach Richard Menicke says that he sees a lot of similarities between the 2012 championship team and the current group of Bulldogs.
“There’s a quiet focus these guys have that’s pretty remarkable,” Menicke said after a recent practice. “They’re hungry for it, which makes it pretty effortless on the coaching side.”
During an easy run last week, the Whitefish boys looped from the high school, through downtown to City Beach and back, running six wide through the city streets, chattering nonstop.
The discussions ranged from the day’s math concepts to a play-by-play of their assistant coach’s recent marathon before turning to the upcoming state championships.
“If we stay healthy for the next 10 days, there’s no reason we can’t win,” said senior Mason Genovese. “It’s been on our minds since last year’s meet.”
In 2021, the Bulldogs finished fourth at state, and in an odd parallel to St. Ignatius, were also without their top runner. Deneb Linton, ranked fifth in the state last year, was on crutches, watching the championships unfold without him. That sparked a year-long focus on training that has the Bulldogs poised to bring home the first trophy in a decade.
This year, other than a few minor aches, the team is healthy and racing well as a team. They also have an extra leg up on other Montana teams. The top five Whitefish runners have all been part of the Glacier Nordic Club during the winters, a facet to their year-round training and fitness that has paid off.
“Being Nordic athletes as well has been a big benefit with these guys’ racing chops,” Menicke said. “They can suffer so much more than most runners can conceive of.”
At the Mountain West Classic, Whitefish was the first non-Class AA team (just two places above St. Ignatius), defeating the nearest Class A school by almost 50 points. The race for the team title has tightened in recent weeks, but last weekend, at the Western A Fall Classic, the Bulldogs cruised to the team title over Corvallis, their neon-yellow jerseys clumped close together throughout the race. That victory served to cement the runners’ vocal goals to win in Missoula.
“I purposefully let them speak those words, and they have been saying them regularly and owning it,” Menicke said. “The focus has been there from day one. Now I just have to tell them to do their thing and go run.”
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