The fall and winter athletic seasons were full of regulations and bereft of crowds, but they went forward with limited, if any, true disruptions to athletes’ high school careers.
This spring season is a different story. After the state shut down last March, shuttering schools and all associated activities for months, graduating seniors lost their final opportunity to bat, throw, serve, sprint and jump. Meanwhile, underclassmen have gone a full 24 months without competitions and coaches have a gap in knowledge of their players’ abilities, and even who their key players may be after missing a whole season of development.
“Losing last track season really hurt those that were new to the sport and the development of the returners,” said Glacier High head track coach Arron Deck. “I’m thinking a lot of coaches are feeling the same about the start of the season.”
More than anything, however, coaches and athletes are excited to be back in the swing of things this spring. Here are a few storylines to follow as the seasons get underway.
Track and Field
Glacier celebrated its first boys team title in 2018 and followed that up with a fourth place finish in 2019. Flathead’s boys finished runner-up in 2018 and third in 2019, and both Class AA teams will be looking to a new generation of sprinters, throwers and jumpers to keep the Flathead Valley near the top of the statewide standings.
Glacier junior Erik Junk threw the javelin 162 feet, one inch in the first meet of the season against Helena Capital, just 10 inches shy of a state qualifying mark. In the same meet, sophomore Jeff Lilliard won the 400 meters and was part of two winning relay teams. Junior Sam Ells, who won the mile in 4:36, is aiming to make his mark in the distance track events after a late season injury hampered his state performance in cross country last fall.
Across town, the Braves have burgeoning talent with freshman sprinter Brady Thorsberry and senior Nicolas Gustafson, who won the triple jump in the first dual meet of the season and will lead a strong jumping crew.
On the girls side, second year Flathead coach Charlie Dotson has an experienced roster to work with. State veterans Cerise Lee, Tori Noland-Gillespie amd Hannah Perrin will be back in the sprints and distance events respectively. Lee was a top-10 performer at state in the 400 as a freshman, almost breaking 60 seconds. Freshman Lili Rumsey-Eash is likely to continue her cross country dominance in the distance track events and multi-sport standout Skyleigh Thompson will be key in the hurdles and sprints.
The Class A and B state meet will be in Laurel and a handful of athletes from Whitefish and Columbia Falls could make some noise there.
Whitefish senior Mikenna Ells won the state title in the 400 meters as a sophomore, running 57.47, the second fastest time in the state that year. Ells also finished third at state in the 800 and is committed to compete for the Griz in college.
Other athletes to watch from the north side of the valley are Tommye Kelly, Hannah Sempf, Lara Erickson and Natasha Abramchuk on the girls side, and Bulldogs Bodie Smith and Marvin Kimera for the boys.
Bigfork graduated many upperclassmen over the last two years, but has a few returners who could be impactful. Senior Rylan Mater made state appearances in the 200 and 400 as a sophomore as did Allie Reighner in the pole vault and Jordan Betts in both hurdle events.
Glacier and Columbia Falls both made appearances at the 2018 and 2019 state softball tournaments, and their ranks are not without seniors who recall those experiences as underclassmen.
The Wolfpack emerged as the top seed out of the Western Conference in 2019 but lost to fourth-ranked Billings Senior in the first round. Glacier came back to win its first consolation game, but couldn’t keep the momentum going, losing to Billings Skyview. The Wolfpack return all-state senior and University of Montana signee Kynzie Mohl. In her first two years with the Wolfpack, Mohl batted .425 with 57 hits and 43 RBIs. Eleven of her hits were home runs. Junior Sammie Labrum, an all-conference honorable mention, will back her up on the bases.
In their last appearance at the state tournament, the Wildkats won in the first round before losing to three-time state champions Belgrade, a team that has since moved up to Class AA. Senior pitcher Abbey Underdahl will lead a team that is nearly half underclassmen.
Whitefish had a strong showing at the last state tennis tournament with a team title for the girls and a runner-up showing for the boys, only a year after the boys tied for the team title.
Singles champion and all-state basketball player Gracie Smyley will be back for her senior year. Prior to her title-clinching season in 2019, Smyley attended a tennis academy in Florida. She is poised to stay on top of the state and wants to help her team defend its title.
Glacier and Flathead will be bringing some experienced talent to their varsity squads this year.
The doubles pairing of Wolfpack Nicole Mitchell and Maddie Johnson swept their opponents in early season matches against both Helena schools and will be a potent combination all season. Flathead’s Joston Cripe has experience in the state singles tournament and Glacier’s Rory Smith will be seeking his second singles title.