Track and Field

New Youth Track Clubs Race to Nationals

The Mission Mountain Mercury and Stumptown Track Club, two inaugural summertime training groups for high school and junior high athletes, sent 16 kids to the National Junior Olympic Championship meet last month

By Micah Drew
High school athletes compete in the Kalispell Timed Trials track and field meet at Legends Stadium on April 11, 2023. Micah Drew | Flathead Beacon

The route to competitive running in Polson runs, quite literally, through the Delaney family.

Jason Delaney has long been a standout member of Montana’s running scene since he moved back to the Treasure State after college. A former Polson High School and University of Wyoming athlete, Delaney began competing post-collegiately on the roads and trails, first making his mark as a 2:19 marathoner, and later becoming one of the country’s top trail runners.

Now, while still a threat to podium anytime he shows up on the starting line of a running race, Delaney spends much of his time around the track or trails in a coaching role, usually for his three kids who have taken up the sport.

“I never anticipated my daughters would be so interested and honestly so good at it,” Delaney said. “They’re flourishing at a young age, far younger than I was when I started running. I didn’t even know it existed as a sport at their age.”

When Delaney began running for Polson High School, his mom realized there weren’t opportunities for younger athletes to begin running competitively and so she founded the middle school cross country team for Delaney’s sister. Now, more than two decades later, Delaney coaches the middle school cross country team she started, and this year he began the Mission Mountain Mercury track club for kids of all ages to take part in a summer of track and field.

In its first summer, the Mercury began as a small group of kids who wanted to continue training after the spring track season ended and grew throughout the year until more than two dozen kids began showing up for practices.

“They’re not always even that competitive, but we always have an enthusiastic group that show up, rain or shine,” Delaney said. “I was also really impressed with our youngest kids. We had a huge age range, and we had kids who had backgrounds as soccer players, swimmers, track, really anything you can think of in terms of athletic ability.”

Those who wanted to take the competitive route through the summer competed at the Montana Association Junior Olympic Championships in June, the Regional Junior Olympic Championships in early July, and late last month at the National Junior Olympic Championships at the historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

Members of the Mission Mountain Mercury Track Club pose at Hayward Field. Contributed photo

Six Mercury athletes qualified for the national meet and five made the trek to Eugene, known as “TrackTown, USA,” to compete at Hayward Field, the track and field facility at the University of Oregon, which hosted the World Championships in 2022.

“In some ways I think it was almost more exciting for me to be coming to Eugene than them,” Delaney said. “I mean, it’s Tracktown, USA; you take five track nerds there and just get them immersed in that culture for a week, it’s impossible not to be in awe of everything.”

All three Delaney kids, Morgan, Quinn and Briggs, qualified for the meet, making it a bit of a family vacation, as well as a competitive highlight to the summer.

Briggs, 10, competed in the 400-meter run, finishing 66th for his age group, and in the shot put where he finished 37th.

Quinn, 13, competed in both the 1500-meter and 3,000-meter runs, ending up 58th and 35th respectively, behind fellow Mercury teammate Kimora Scott, who finished 49th and 31st in each event, each in a personal best time.

Morgan, 15, was the top athlete from the Mercury, finishing ninth in the 3,000-meter run, one agonizing spot away from All-American honors.

“I don’t usually get nervous before races, but I think having this level of competition got to me a bit,” Morgan said. “I was a little bummed because I was only a few strides away from All-American. I was mostly just excited afterwards for the pizza.” (Eugene is known for its TrackTown Pizza parlor, a veritable shrine to the sport.)

Delaney said his oldest daughter executed one of the best races of anyone in the field that day and kept passing her competitors all the way until she crossed the finish line. 

“If the race had been 200 meters longer (the distance raced in Montana track) she’d have been seventh easily,” he added.

Athletes compete at the National Junior Olympic Championships in Eugene, Ore. Contributed photo

Part of the impetus behind launching the Mercury was to give Morgan the chance to compete in regional meets as a middle school athlete. When she first went to a regional cross country meet, she was unattached and bereft of teammates. The Mercury was a way to provide a team atmosphere for all like-minded kids, but Delaney said just in the last year he’s seen a wave of new clubs starting all over the state.

One such club that launched this year was the Stumptown Track Club, the brainchild of Whitefish High School track coach Willie Roche and Columbia Falls assistant coach Josiah Osborne.

Following the Class A state meet in May, the two coaches were musing about the possibilities of combining their stand-out girls sprinting squads, a potentially a national-caliber idea.

Within a few short weeks, the Stumptown Track Club launched with athletes taking part from not just the north valley schools, but Glacier, Flathead and Bigfork high schools.

At the July regional meet, Glacier’s Aiden Krause won the discus, Whitefish’s Hailey Ells won the 400-meter hurdles and 15 total Stumptown athletes qualified for the national meet.

The top placing athlete in Eugene was 16-year-old Breanna Barnes, who finished ninth in the pole vault, one spot away from All-American honors. Aiden Krause had a 10th place finish in the discus and a 22nd place finish in the shot put.

The combined 4×100-meter relay team made up of Hailey Ells, Ally Sempf, Brooke Zetooney and Alivia Rinehart finished 24th, but during the summer season posted a time faster than the Class A winning time run by an all-Whitefish girls squad back in May.

The momentum formed during the first summer season for both track clubs is sure to carry over into winter training, when junior high and high school track athletes only have unofficial training with their schools. It also continues to build a culture around the sport, Delaney said.

“When I first started looking at Junior Olympic stuff, I was disappointed in how small the fields are in Montana, especially compared to other states,” Delaney said. “But it’s awesome seeing more and more communities getting clubs together. I love the atmosphere of these kinds of competitions too, because you have kids who are competitors in school and at the state meet, and then at nationals you get to be fans and supporters of everyone.”

View the rest of the Stumptown Track Club and Mission Mountain Mercury results from the National Junior Olympic Championships here and here.