Cross Country

Montana State Men’s Cross Country Better Prepared in Return Trip to Nationals

Two Kalispell high school graduates —Flathead's Ben Perrin and Glacier's Sam Ells — helped MSU qualify for the Saturday's NCAA national championships

By Braden Shaw, 406mtsports.com
The Montana State men's cross country team placed fifth overall at the Mountain Regional Saturday in Lubbock, Texas. Noah Syverson, MSU Athletics

BOZEMAN — Duncan Hamilton fell during the opening stampede. Levi Taylor lost a shoe. The gun had just gone off at the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Cross Country Championships, and Montana State was already behind.

Montana State’s Ben Perrin races to the finish during the Big Sky cross country championships at the University of Montana Golf Course, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. BEN ALLAN SMITH Missoulian/406mtsports.com

“It was just a lot of stuff that happened early on in the race that kind of put us in a tough spot,” head coach Lyle Weese said.

There were many unknown factors the Bobcats had to simply endure. Thirty other teams, along with a group of individual qualifiers, lined up alongside them. The positioning and pace of a championship cross country race, which “tends to go out fast and stay fast,” MSU’s Ben Perrin said, can also prove difficult.

The Bobcats placed 25th in their first national meet as a team since 2002. Matthew Richtman, who finished 40th overall, became the third MSU men’s cross country runner to earn All-American honors, joining Shannon Butler (1989, 1990) and Weese (2002).

The current group had talked about simply making it to that stage throughout the 2022 season. Proving the Bobcats belonged with the top class of Division I cross country was the main goal.

Last year, the Bobcats were “just really happy to be there,” Perrin said. Now, with MSU qualifying as an at-large team for the third time in program history thanks to a fifth-place finish at the Mountain West Regional, it’s a different mindset. The Bobcats will race at 9:10 a.m. Mountain Time Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. The race will be broadcast on ESPNU.

“We’re just really ready to prove ourselves that we can run really well at the national stage,” Perrin added.

Missing out on nationals in 2021 — and subsequently being “pretty humbled,” Perrin said, in 2022 — provided the groundwork for this season. The Bobcats were missing Hamilton, who now runs professionally for Bowerman Track Club. But MSU returned Perrin, Richtman, Levi Taylor, Rob McManus and Owen Smith. Perrin, McManus and Taylor also had the benefit of competing at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June.

Still, MSU had a different approach this fall. The Bobcats were less aggressive to start the season, Perrin said, reflected in a ninth-place finish at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite (MSU finished fourth last year) and a fourth-place finish at the Pre-Nationals meet in Charlottesville (MSU placed first last year).

No matter the early results, the focus remained on the end of the season, Perrin said. So the second-place finish at the Big Sky Conference Championships — behind perennial favorites Northern Arizona — shouldn’t have surprised. After conferences, the Bobcats were “feeling the best we had,” Perrin said, with five runners in the top 14 and seven in the top 19.

MSU was projected sixth in the Mountain Regional in Lubbock, Texas, and likely needed a fifth-place finish or higher to earn a trip to nationals. Notably, the region featured No. 1 NAU, No. 3 BYU, No. 19 New Mexico, No. 23 Colorado and No. 24 Air Force.

Perrin (10th place; 29 minutes, 18.1 seconds) and Richtman (21st, 29:36.9) earned all-region honors. Smith (28th, 29:56.8), McManus (34th, 30:12.1), Taylor (42nd, 30:17.0) and Sam Ells (45th, 30:21.0) all placed in the top 50. Most importantly, MSU beat out Colorado for fifth place (135 points).

Weber State’s Kevin Kirk, left, puts his arm around Montana State’s Sam Ells after they finish the race during the Big Sky cross country championships at the University of Montana Golf Course, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. | BEN ALLAN SMITH Missoulian/406mtsports.com

Seeing MSU’s name pop up on the NCAA’s selection show the following day made the moment even more exciting.

“They put in so much work over the summer, over the fall, trained so hard,” Weese said. “They’re up against really great teams throughout the country.”

Perrin added that the group reflected on the past two seasons during the trip back to Bozeman. This berth to nationals feels even more special, he said, because of some of the uncertainty with a slower start to the year. But MSU kept getting “better and better” each meet.

“Being able to make it back again is just great for the program and it just shows that we’re trending in the right direction and hopefully we can keep building on what we have going,” Perrin said.

The familiarity with the course in Virginia will help, even with the race bumping up from an 8K to a 10K. Having experience — whether it be in cross country or in track and field — is the “most important thing” when attacking a national meet, Perrin said.

MSU wants to improve on last season’s finish most of all. Weese said it would be “really exciting” to continue building up, especially without Hamilton, who had “such a major presence” on the team during his time in Bozeman.

It’s a new chapter now. The Bobcats are now aware of the needed balance of racing aggressive while staying relaxed amid the intense environment at nationals.

“We learned a lot (from last season),” Perrin said, “and we’re really excited to go back out and get a little revenge because we know we can do a lot better this year.”

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