The last time Kalispell’s Rebecca Farm played host to the MHSA State Cross Country Championships was in 2020, during an early-winter cold snap that dumped several inches of snow on the course and sent temperatures plummeting into the single digits. In addition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meet was divided into two days of racing to minimize people on the course.
This year, things are set to proceed as normally as can be hoped for at a state championship — the single-day of competition will feature eight races beginning at 11 a.m. and the National Weather Service is forecasting clear skies with high temperatures in the mid-60s.
Here’s a breakdown of the Class AA and A races and which local runners to keep an eye on.
CLASS AA BOYS
2022 individual champion: Weston Brown, Bozeman
Top returning athlete: Nathan Neil, Bozeman, 2nd place
Storylines to watch: Sometimes a runaway victory in a cross country meet isn’t the most thrilling race to watch, but you can’t help but cheer on Nathan Neil on Saturday, as all signs point to him doing just that. The Bozeman senior is undefeated this year, including putting away a national-caliber field at the Nike Hole-in-the-Wall Invitational just two days after winning Helena’s Capital City 7 of 7. Neil has broken 15 minutes in the 5k three times this year, including a 14:50 in the first meet of the season on the state course, which made him the fastest high schooler to compete on Montana soil. It’s hard to bet against Neil, but if you had to, Great Falls senior Ryan Harrington is well poised to exploit any weakness.
Locally, Flathead’s Robie Nuilla is a great story to follow. The Flathead High School junior transferred from St. Ignatius, where last year he finished second in the Class B meet and helped the Bulldogs win the first title in program history, ending a 49-year drought across all sports. Now in class AA, Nuilla is ranked sixth overall, and is the fastest non-senior on the starting line.
The Bozeman Hawks have only been upset three times since 2006, and that’s unlikely to change this year. Behind Neil, the team should have an easy route to victory, with Great Falls and Billings West battling for the bottom of the podium.
CLASS AA GIRLS
2022 individual champion: Claire Rutherford, Gallatin
Top returning athlete: Claire Rutherford, Gallatin, champion
Storylines to watch: Since 2006, no school not named Bozeman or Hellgate has claimed the Class AA crown, and Hellgate only edged into the top spot for the first time in 2020. This year, last year’s podium could repeat in any order and it wouldn’t be surprising. In the three biggest meets of the year — Flathead Invite, Mountain West Classic and 7 of 7 — the teams changed their finish order.
Behind them, Flathead has finished fourth twice in the last three years, and the team is hungry to finally earn a trophy. However, Glacier High School edged Flathead once this year and last week lost by just two points. An off day by any of the top three teams could send a Kalispell team onto the podium.
There are two freshman to watch in this race, Bozeman’s Kylie Neil and Glacier’s Lauren Bissen. Twice the two runners have finished in a virtual tie, with photos finishes awarding the win to Neil in a Bozeman race, and Bissen in Helena’s 7 on 7 meet. Rutherford is the only Class AA runner to beat both freshman in the last month of racing, though Hellgate’s Rose Wiltse and Gallatin’s Bella Determan have also clocked top-five finishes against AA competition this season.
CLASS A BOYS
- Park County
2022 individual champion: Grey Piseno, Billings Central Catholic
Top returning athlete: Grey Piseno, Billings Central Catholic, champion
Storylines to watch: The Whitefish Bulldogs made a strong run for the state title last year, coming up a dozen points shy of the championship. Despite losing two scoring runners, and senior Deneb Linton recovering from a knee injury, coach Richard Menicke has again assembled a strong team that should be a podium contender. The biggest challenges will come from northwest Montana — Browning High School easily won the Western A Fall Classic last week. In fact, Browning lost just one meet to Class A competition all year (on a day their No. 3 runner didn’t compete), and Montana’s winningest cross country program could be primed to return to the top. The only team to beat Browning this year has been Columbia Falls. Coach Jim Peacock’s Wildcats won state in 2018 and 2019, and he has a knack for getting the best out of his athletes when it matters. A strong regional rivalry (not to mention the cross-valley Cats-Dogs fight) will make each runner critically aware that every position matters and could make this the most exciting team race of the weekend.
CLASS A GIRLS
- Columbia Falls
2022 individual champion: Karis Brightwings-Pease, Hardin
Top returning athlete: Karis Brightwings-Pease, Hardin, champion
Storylines to watch: Hardin again looks to be a lock on the state title, with the Bulldogs boasting a roster that features four of the state’s 10 fastest runners. Behind them, Corvallis and Columbia Falls have both returned strong teams and this podium could be identical to last year’s, or see a switch on the lower two rungs. Peacock’s Wildkats won state over both rival schools in 2021, but upsetting Hardin will take something akin to magic.
The individual race looks to be even more of a lock — Brightwings-Pease has run the fastest time in Montana of any girl regardless of classification, a solid minute faster than the next Class A competitor. In a race where youth reigns supreme and five of the top ten runners are freshman, keep an eye on Polson’s Morgan Delaney to be a low stick representing northwest teams.
MHSA Cross Country State Championship meet schedule, Oct. 21:
11:00 a.m. C – Boys
11:25 a.m. AA – Boys
11:50 p.m. C – Girls
12:20 p.m. AA – Girls
12:50 p.m. A – Boys
1:15 p.m. B – Boys
1:40 p.m. A – Girls
2:10 p.m. B – Girls
Results will be available at www.competitivetiming.com
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