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Bill Speltz: Small-school cross country teams push past disappointment

Bill Speltz: Small-school cross country teams push past disappointment

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MISSOULA — Unless you've attended a Montana high school state cross country meet, it's hard to understand how much these teens give of themselves.

There's nothing quite like it in any other prep sport. You get more kids dropping to the ground in exhaustion, more cottonmouth, more collective raw emotion spilling out than in any other state event.

For so many of us who played football, basketball or baseball, the thought of running one's guts out without chasing a ball seems like torture. Listening to yourself breathe hard — that used to be my uniformed definition of cross country. Or perhaps a convention of slender people, if you will.

Truth is, the sport takes a special kind of athlete and a unique level of inner strength. And that's just in a normal season.

This fall, it's hard to imagine any more admirable high school endeavor than competing for a small-school cross country team. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, small schools are unable to participate in Class AA meets. Plus there's no guarantee there's ever going to be a state meet. 

For the perennially-powerful Corvallis girls team, it's living a day-by-day existence with a schedule turned upside down.

No opportunities to compete against the highly-touted Missoula Hellgate girls like they really wanted to do. No opportunities to compete in Missoula or Helena or Kalispell, period. Just a lot of small meets — some of which have been thrown together — all in the interest of creating some semblance of a season.

"It's a bummer not being able to go against those bigger teams, but we're trying to focus on the positive," Corvallis 16-year coach Joanne Cleveland told 406mtsports.com. "We're having a season, we're healthy, that's where we're going.

"We're doing something normal in this world where everything is not normal. It has changes with it but everybody is happy to have meets."

The elephant in the room Cleveland doesn't discuss much with her runners is the state meet, which is slated for Oct. 24 in Kalispell. If it is held as scheduled, it's going to be decidedly different.

"Even if you had separate state meets for each class, the rules right now are 200 competitors at a meet and only 28 at a time on the starting line," Cleveland said. "In Class A alone, you're looking at 22 schools with maybe seven kids each."

Ordinarily, a Class A team like Corvallis would have a chance to scout the state meet course with a regular-season event. Not this season. The Rebecca Farm venue in Kalispell will remain more or less a mystery to the Blue Devils' formidable top five of Olivia Buoy, Katie Gleason, Laurie Davidson, Anna Jessop and Kaitlyn Blatter.   

That's the least of their worries now. If you asked any of the Blue Devils at this point, they'd gladly accept running on a mystery course at state just as long as you guaranteed there would be a state meet.

"It's kind of week-by-week as far as where we're going and what we're doing," offered Cleveland, whose team has added meets in Dillon and Ronan this month and will compete twice in Hamilton. "Compared to last spring, right now you're happy to have a season."

You can't help but feel for the seniors who have worked so hard for this moment. All those young and dedicated athletes who have sacrificed for so long in solitary workouts.

The situation is surreal and it makes a lot of us old timers, including myself, appreciate our high school experiences even more.

Here's hoping this year's seniors have a state meet to talk about when they're old and gray.

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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