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Griz get early run before Big Sky

13 Dec 2021 | 08:20 | Cross Country

The Montana cross country teams will open their short winter season this weekend when the Grizzlies race at the Idaho Orchards Invitational in Lewiston on Saturday afternoon.

The women’s five-kilometer race will start at 2 p.m. (MT), the men’s eight-kilometer race at 2:45 p.m. (MT). The forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s.

Saturday’s race is the only competition Montana will get before the Big Sky Conference Championships, which will be held on Saturday, Feb. 27, in Riverdale, Utah.

Montana has not competed in a cross country race since Nov. 15, 2019. For those athletes who competed during last winter’s indoor track and field season, they last raced in late February, more than 11 months ago.

“We’re ready to go, but that doesn’t mean you are going to feel a sense of normalcy when you get back to racing,” said coach Clint May. “It’s going to feel just new enough that I think this race is going to be very, very valuable.

“I don’t mind if they are nervous and apprehensive. I want to get through that this meet so conference is just the good nerves.”

The race will be low-key, with men’s and women’s teams from Montana, Eastern Washington and host Idaho, plus the women’s team from Washington State.

“I’m mostly excited but I’m nervous too,” said May. “For as much as we’re unsure of where we’re at, we have no idea where those other teams are.

“My message to the teams is, don’t worry about failing. Make a race decision and go with it and do the very best you can. Then we’ll learn from the experience. That will be the primary goal coming out of this one.”

May will bring his entire women’s team, which goes just nine runners deep. It has no seniors and only two athletes — juniors Rachel Torrey and Hannah Wylie — who are non-transfer upperclassmen.

Four of the team’s nine runners are true freshmen.

Montana placed sixth at the Big Sky Championships more than 14 months ago and was picked seventh in the preseason coaches’ poll that was released in July.

Idaho was picked fourth, Eastern Washington 10th.

“On the women’s side, our team doesn’t have a lot of depth to have potential off days or injury, but I still think they can do well,” said May.

“I want to see us mixing in really well with the competition, so our (No. 7 runner) is not too far away from somebody else’s (No. 7).”

Headlining the returners is sophomore Beatrix Frissell, who led Montana in three of six races in 2019 and finished second to June Eastwood in the others.

That included an All-Big Sky 10th-place finish at the conference championship in Greeley, Colo.

In her one season of indoor track, she placed fifth in the 5,000 meters last February in Pocatello, Idaho, ninth in the 3,000 meters.

“I’ve been training hard since COVID happened, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a while, but I don’t feel I’m at my top, and I shouldn’t feel that way now. I’m kind of accepting of that,” she said.

“What I’m excited to do is learn how to compete again and learn how to race again. Racing is kind of that way. You have to practice it to get it right, so that you’re actually racing the whole time and not just doing a tempo run.”

If his women’s team is thin, May’s men’s team goes a robust 17 deep. Sixteen of them will be racing on Saturday.

It’s a team that hasn’t had much success at the Big Sky level the last few years, finishing 10th or lower at the league championship the last four years.

But if there was one constant from the race-free fall, it was May getting excited when asked about his men’s team.

He wanted to give them a chance to compete so they could put their work on display and to the test. Saturday the Grizzlies will get that opportunity.

“I really like where we are on the men’s side. I think the men will surprise. I think we’ll do better than has been the recent tradition,” he said. “These guys have a chance of doing really well.”

In the preseason coaches’ poll, Montana tied for eighth with Eastern Washington. Idaho, a team the Grizzlies have not defeated in a head-to-head race since 2015, was picked fifth.

“I think our men have a chance of winning (on Saturday),” May said. “And the last time we beat Idaho, I have no idea. It will be exciting to see how it comes out.”

It wasn’t a major change in the roster that has Montana trending upward but a return of all seven runners who raced at the 2019 Big Sky Championships, plus some talented newcomers.

Hunter May led Montana in three of six races in 2019. Will Dauenhauer led the Grizzlies twice, Ben Vanderbosch once. Kyle Peterson was top four at all six races.

After training his team during the fall semester — and loving how his Grizzlies responded — May gave his athletes the final three weeks of November off before putting them back on a training plan the six weeks before they returned to campus last month.

“Last fall we were in a good place. We’re right back at that good spot,” he said.

His men’s team may win on Saturday. It may not. But at least the expectations are higher than they’ve been for quite a while, and that’s a sign of progress.

He just hopes he overhears the coaches for Idaho and Eastern Washington saying the same thing after the race. Oh, Montana is in a different place right now.

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