For five years now, the Corvallis girls' track and field team has done a pretty good job of removing the uncertainty from the Class A state title predictions. The Blue Devils have brought home five consecutive first-place trophies, a run that ranks with some of the most illustrious in state history.
But after five years, that streak has been jeopardized by the graduation of key members of the 2015 title team. Nobody is quite sure which team will grace the top of the podium when the Class A track meet comes to a close sometime during the late afternoon hours of May 28 in Bozeman.
Whether by graduation, transfer, incoming freshmen or class realignment, the championship picture has been destabilized throughout Montana's three smaller classes and hope of gold is proliferating around the programs that make up the Class A, B and C landscape.
Corvallis could very well add a sixth trophy, tying what is currently the longest reign in state history (Billings Senior's girls are 2016's favorite in AA to win what would be their seventh straight title). But it would be no surprise to see Hamilton win, or maybe even Columbia Falls.
In Class B, without three-time defending champion Plains in the picture after it was demoted to Class C, Bigfork's talent on the track could propel it to its first title since 1992. And in C, the triumphant Memorial Day weekends the Trotters have grown so accustomed to will be threatened by Seeley-Swan and West Yellowstone.
Aside from Class B, where Manhattan is the heavy favorite to win its fifth straight state meet -- and seventh in nine years -- the unpredictability of the girls' side of things is duplicated on the boys', especially in Class A.
"To be honest with you, in Class A this year -- in boys and girls -- I don't think there is a clear-cut champ like there was the last couple years," Hamilton's John Stromberg said. "It's wide open."
"I think there are going to be four or five teams that have a chance to win it," Corvallis' Spencer Huls added. "All four or five of those teams could be within 10 points on that Saturday at state."
But as uncertainty abounds, one thing that is clear is that much of the power in small-school track is found in the west. Teams from Western Division towns are expected to fight each other for positioning in A, B and C and those squads Huls referenced are all in the west, many of them in the Bitterroot Valley.
The Class B title hasn't yet been conceded to Manhattan, but the feeling, perhaps best articulated by Thompson Falls coach Randy Simon, is that the rest of the class will be running, hurdling, jumping and throwing for second.
"(Manhattan) it seems to me in B, they've got a lock on it. They can score probably over 90 points," he said.
But in the pack behind the Tigers are Bigfork, Thompson Falls and Eureka. It appears that the Class C boys' field is the only one without a group of western contenders.
The graduation of a Katelyn Frost, who won four events at the 2015 state meet, was the biggest blow to Corvallis' chances of claiming its sixth straight team title. But there is talent returning in sprinter Penny Jessop and javelin tosser Zena Smith.
Without the points Frost was likely to produce, Huls is asking his athletes to diversify their talents to compete with the likes of Hamilton and Columbia Falls. Huls is also hoping the program's championship tradition infuses the Blue Devils' mentality.
"It could be seen as pressure and we kind of put pressure on them and they kind of get used to it," Huls said. "But it is motivation and they're really interested in keeping that tradition alive."
Saturday's meet in Frenchtown provided a glimpse at the battle that should unfold between Corvallis and Hamilton. The Broncs came within three points of Corvallis thanks to a strong effort from distance runner Jacie Schmalz and the high-jumping duo of Kacia Guisinger and Ashlee Searle.
"If we stay healthy, I think we'll be right there for a trophy at the end of the year," Stromberg said. "Our jumpers are pretty strong. We've got Jacie Schmalz in the (1,600 meters) and the 3,200 and she's pretty strong there. There's a lot of potential."
The graduation of Makena Morley, one of the most decorated long-distance runners in state history, appeared like it would derail a Bigfork team that fell five points short of a state title last year. But younger sister Bryn, and newcomer Anya Young provide depth in the distance races and Haile Norred is one of the favorites in the sprints.
Bigfork cruised to an easy win Saturday at the Bigfork Invitational, winning seven of the 10 track events.
The Valkyries should also benefit from Plains dropping from B to C. The Trotters were also hit by graduation, losing the 24 points provided by Hailey Phillips. But there is reason to believe Plains is in position to win its fourth consecutive title. Distance runner Kimberly Earhart is back and so is the Leah Thompson, the odds-on favorite to win the discus and the shot.
But Plains faces a challenge in Seeley-Swan; the teams tied for second at the Bigfork Invite. The Blackhawks are loaded with junior javelin tosser Alex Bohlman, distance runner Stephanie Robbins and all four members of its state champion 1,600 relay team.
Seeley-Swan should also be bolstered by senior Paige Holmes, who will compete after sitting out her junior year with an injury. As a sophomore, Holmes scored 22 points in the state meet.
"We have a pretty good corps of girls back and should be pretty good by the end of the year if we can keep them healthy," Blackhawks coach Mike Haines said.
Haines' feeling about his girls team is similar to the sense Huls has about his mostly untested boys' squad. Though the Blue Devils are Class A's reigning state champs, a good bit of the team that will attempt a repeat took a back seat to a group of seniors that earned those points.
It's a bunch the coach will take a wait-and-see approach to see how the talent develops through the next six weeks.
"For us, our mentality is that there are two weeks that count and they're divisionals and state," Huls said.
Whitefish was primed for a run at the State A title and may have been the favorite, but the Bulldogs' hopes took a hit when sprinter Jed Nagler underwent season-ending surgery to repair a damaged meniscus. Still, Whitefish has another season of Luke May, the state champion in the javelin.
Thompson Falls brings a collection of speed on the track and a few standouts in the field that should allow them to contest for the spot behind Manhattan. Trais Hoisington, Tanner Laws, Xavier Broderick, Josh Wulfekuhle and Garrett Strine give the Bluehawks a deep field of sprinters, distance runners and hurdlers that will be counted on to produce.
Then in the field, Jake Gascon in the pole volt and McKenzie Holt in the discus will provide a few more. Symon said that Holt, a multi-talented junior, could even supply some points on the track.
Bigfork will count on distance specialist Logan Morley, who won the 1,600 and the 3,200 and finished third in the 800 last year, to lead the way.
One of the biggest changes this season will be experienced at the Class C level, which for the first time will use qualifying metrics for the state meet. The times and distances were set by taking the fifth-place finish at the last three state meets and averaging them. Those times will only count at computer-timed events, which eliminate some of the times that have already been turned in this season.
Fittingly, it's unclear how that will impact the State C meet, but Haines, the coach at Seeley-Swan, believes it could strengthen the field.
"Some of our standards are pretty tough," Haines said. "I guess we'll learn. We haven't had them yet, but I think that will definitely bring the best there."