When the Montana women’s track and field team came up 12 points short of winning the title at the Big Sky Conference indoor championships at Pocatello, Idaho, in February, all focus immediately turned toward the outdoor championships, two and a half months away.
Give us another shot, we’ll get it done this time was the line of thinking, fostered by the disappointment of having let a valuable opportunity slip away.
That time has passed, and the outdoor meet has arrived, starting on Wednesday and going through Saturday at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium, the first time the championships have been held in Sacramento since 2011.
The path traveled in March and April wasn’t the one Montana’s coaches would have preferred. Weather hindered training plans, and at least one meet wasn’t worth the cost of the travel, so outrageous were the conditions during competition.
But the championships are here, and three weeks of improved weather have the Grizzlies mostly where they want to be on the eve of the biggest meet (and opportunity for redemption) of their lives.
“It’s not the path we would have drawn up, but we’re at the destination we wanted to get to and where we need to be,” said UM coach Brian Schweyen.
“Our kids on both sides of this team are performing very well. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. We’re in a great position going into this week, and I’m excited about it.”
Montana and Northern Arizona were expected to be in a two-team battle for indoor supremacy in February, and that’s the way it played out. The Grizzlies led after day one and two, but the Lumberjacks had enough points on day three to rally for the title.
Expect more of the same this week in Sacramento State. In a mock competition based strictly off the latest Big Sky performance list, both teams would score 125 points.
“For us to win, every athlete we’re taking has to do what she is capable of,” said Schweyen. “We should have some surprises, but what you want to avoid are any disappointments.
“That’s not pressure on the athletes. We just need to go out and do what we do. If we do that, we’ll be right in it. It’s just going to come down to which team brings it and competes the best.”
On the men’s side, nobody is touching Northern Arizona, which will continue a trend. Last year Montana finished a surprising second, and there was a larger point spread between the first-place Lumberjacks and second-place Grizzlies (97.5) than between Montana and last-place North Dakota (74.5).
But get past first place, and the battle should be fun to watch, with Weber State, Southern Utah, Montana State and Montana all capable of competing their way into second. Or down to fifth or lower.
Montana’s second-place finish a year ago was its best since taking runner-up honors in 2002.
“It’s going to be a battle,” said Schweyen. “And that’s going to make it exciting and a lot of fun.”
Montana, as it did at the indoor championships, when Erika McLeod and Nicole Stroot finished first and second in the pentathlon, has the potential to get off to a fast start when the multi-events open on Wednesday.
The decathlon begins at noon (MT) both Wednesday and Thursday. The heptathlon starts at 12:30 p.m. (MT) on Wednesday, 1 p.m. (MT) on Thursday.
McLeod, who has won the last two indoor pentathlon titles and won last spring’s heptathlon championship in Greeley, Colo., is sitting third on the Big Sky performance list with her 5,003 points from Mt. SAC in mid-April, but she is still the prohibitive favorite going into championship week.
McLeod has the potential to score north of 5,500 points, and that’s something nobody else in the field is capable of doing.
She didn’t have the best start to the outdoor season, but McLeod is rolling at the right time. She went 14.59 in the 100-meter hurdles and 19-4.25 in the long jump at the Montana Open two weeks ago. On Friday at the Tom Gage Classic, she ran a 24.69 in the 200 meters and threw the javelin 114-6.
“Erika’s last two weeks have been fantastic with what she’s done with her individual events,” said Schweyen. “That’s really put her mind at ease and settled her.
“I think she’s as ready as she’s ever been for a conference meet. There is no pressure on her. She just has to go have fun and compete, and when she does that, she’s awesome.”
Stroot’s best heptathlon finish was when she placed sixth as a sophomore in 2015. Like McLeod, Stroot is coming off one of her best outdoor meets of the spring. She had another sub-14.4 hurdles race, had a long jump of 18-7.5 and went beyond 100 feet in the javelin.
She scored a career-best 4,818 points to win the heptathlon at the Montana Open two weeks ago, but she’s got the potential to score more than 5,200, which could have her and McLeod repeating their 1-2 finish at Pocatello in the pentathlon.
“Nicole’s ready to go. She realizes this is her last conference meet, and she’s the type of athlete who brings it, so I expect her to have the best conference meet of her life,” said Schweyen.
Montana freshman Brendan Thurber-Blaser has the Big Sky’s top decathlon score this spring of 6,660, which he scored two weeks ago at the Montana Open. But he’s not necessarily the favorite, not in a field as balanced as this year’s.
Idaho State’s Kyle Searle and Weber State’s Reece Lafaye both have scores close to Thurber-Blaser’s, and Montana State’s Mason Storm is the defending Big Sky decathlon champion and won the heptathlon at the indoor championships.
“There are a few guys in that group who haven’t put up a big total yet this spring but will be ready to battle,” said Schweyen. “I think you’re going to see four or five guys battling for that top spot, and two of them will be from the University of Montana.”
That includes Charlie Bush, who has completed just one decathlon in his career, at the 2016 Montana Open.
Also competing for Montana will be Josh Riley and Grant Whitcutt, both freshmen. Riley scored 6,196 points two weeks ago at the Montana Open and has since posted PRs in the 400 meters and shot put. Whitcutt, at 6,001, also reached 6,000 points at the Montana Open.
“Josh has been having some incredible meets and is getting more and more confident in all of his events. Both of those guys could score,” said Schweyen.
“It’s tough to have four people score, but all four are capable, and I anticipate them all having a great meet.”
The championships’ open events start on Friday, with eight finals in the field events and finals in the steeplechase and 10,000 meters on the track, plus six running events that feed into Saturday’s finals.
There are eight more field events on Saturday, and all 20 events on the track are finals.
Ten people and/or events to keep an eye on:
1. If Montana is going to win its first women’s conference title since 1987, it best not come down to the final event, the 4×400 relay. Northern Arizona has a season-best time of 3:40.72 that is three seconds faster than any other time in the league this spring and faster than the Montana school record.
2. When Sterling Reneau races the 400 meters on both Friday and Saturday, he’ll be trying to repeat the Big Sky title he won during the indoor championships. A second goal: If he wants to make a repeat trip to regionals, he’ll need a time that is probably faster than 46.80.
3. Sammy Evans will be going for her fifth career triple jump title on Saturday afternoon. The last athlete to win five indoor and outdoor triple jump titles was Monique Young of Northern Arizona between 2003 and 2007. Last May’s long jump champion will be competing in that event on Friday afternoon.
4. The 4×100 relay team of Callum Macnab, Sterling Reneau, Alex Mustard and Dominique Bobo has the second-fastest time this spring, less than half a second behind Northern Arizona. If the Grizzlies win, it will be their first Big Sky title in the event since 1969.
5. With five athletes holding a seed time of faster than 2:10 in the women’s 800 meters, it should make for one of the meet’s more exciting events. And two of those are from Montana. Emily Cheroske (2:08.76) and Carly Smiedala (2:09.26) both went sub-2:10 two weeks ago at the Montana Open.
6. Only four throwers have gone farther than 200 feet this spring in the men’s javelin, making it a down year for the event. Montana’s Daniel Jonesranks first at 213-0. Brady Coffman, at 205-5, ranks third. If one of them wins, it would be four titles for the Grizzlies in the event in the last eight years.
7. Jane Booth no-heighted in the high jump at the indoor championships, but she’s been rolling this spring, four times clearing 5-7 or higher, with a season-best of 5-9.25 at the Montana Open two weeks ago that has her tied for second in the Big Sky.
8. Racing near sea level and pulled along by Weber State’s Ellie Child, Jessica Bailey, ranked second in the event, could challenge Kara DeWalt’s school steeplechase record of 10:11.44 from 2011. It would take a 13-second PR by Bailey, but the conditions are right for it to happen.
9. Matt Quist has the Big Sky’s top high jump this spring of 6-11, but he’ll have some competition in Montana State’s Noah Martin (6-10.75) and Weber State’s Anthony Gregory (6-10.75), plus Sacramento State’s Daniel Onuoha (6-9), who will have the advantage of competing on his home track.
10. One gauge of how the Montana women are doing on the final day of the championships will be the discus. The Grizzlies have four of the top-seven ranked athletes in the event in Kayla Holmes, last year’s champion, Hana Feilzer, Holly Houston and Samantha Hodgson. They need to clean up.