Columbia Falls head cross country coach Jim Peacock describes his sport as “a herd of turtles,” a sport that is about pace and patience, not speed.
His philosophy paid off in Missoula Saturday as his “herd” brought home the Wildcats’ first cross country state title since 2009.
Led by junior Joe Lamb and sophomore Seth Umbriaco, the Wildcats finished the meet with just 76 points, 31 points ahead of of second-place Hardin.
“I am thrilled with how the boys ran this race,” Peacock said. “On paper, Hardin and Columbia Falls are statistically similar teams. I really thought the race would be decided by five points or less, so to finish with a spread of just over 30 points is awesome. All our boys were just solid.”
Lamb was the top finisher for the Cats, coming in third with a time of 16:42.20 while Seth Umbriaco was just a step behind, finishing fourth two seconds later. James Role was 11th, Aidan Jarvis was 20th and Beau Umbriaco was 38th. Alternates Bryce Bennett and Bailey Sjostrom finished 61st and 78th, respectively.
For senior runners Beau Umbriaco and Bennett, the state title was the realization of a four-year dream.
“Winning a state title was a goal that we have had since my freshman year,” Umbriaco said.
“As freshmen, we thought winning the state title was pretty much a fantasy,” Bennett added. “We were third to last at state as freshmen, we weren’t very good. It seemed out of our reach, but through hard work and team unity, we were able to get there. It validated several years of hard work, track included, and a culture shift, which is something we really have been focusing on.”
According to Lamb, who described his reaction to winning the state title as “uncontrollable incoherent screaming,” the win came after the team used competition among themselves to the benefit of all.
“It was about the competition between all of us,” he said. “When I was a freshman, we were all chasing Sage Wanner. Last year it was Gabe Knudsen. He pushed us and also pushed team unity. This year, we just kept carrying that philosophy. We did this as a team.”
That team chemistry is what made this year special, Peacock said.
“From the time they got out of school last year, these kids put in anywhere from 500 to 600 miles of work. What motivates them to do it? Some of it is personal satisfaction. Some of it is team satisfaction. One of the biggest elements that you can’t count out is that it is just fun,” Peacock said. “They have a good time together and they develop a good sense of family. The one common thread you always hear with championship teams is that they are like a family. It sounds cliche, but there is a reason that they all say that.”
That sense of family extended to the girls team, which came away with a sixth-place finish Saturday.
Individually, Lara Erickson, a sophomore, spent much of the race leading her own teammates. She made a gutsy move on the uphill section of the course around the halfway mark of the race. Erickson ran herself from around 25th place to 13th place by the top of the hill. The effort used to make this surge ended up taking a toll on her legs in the last mile of the race, and she lost some of the position she had gained, eventually finishing 20th.
Running a different strategy, senior teammate Genevieve Delorme ran a steadier pace and worked her way through the field and passed Lara in the closing 300 meters of the race and finished in 19th place to lead all the Columbia Falls girls.
Rounding out the girls, senior Raychel Hoerner finished 34th in her last race in a Wildkat uniform. Kara Mohr, a junior, ran her fastest race of the season to finish 42nd. Sophomore Alyssa Blankenship was 67th in her first ever state race. Emma Upton, another sophomore, finished 69th, and senior Kaila Belston ran her way to a 74th place finish.
“I am really pleased with the season the girls had. They improved significantly from the prior season’s finish, and more importantly developed a true sense of being a team,” Peacock said. “They ran for the team’s benefit instead of running as individuals. They set high goals, and even though they didn’t quite reach their goal of getting a trophy at state, they can still look at the season as a success.”
Peacock’s runners echoed his sentiments.
“We wanted team togetherness more than anything else. That’s what we mainly focused on but we also had a goal of doing the best we could,” Belston said.
“Seeing the growth we had as a team and also moving up that many places at state, that was very rewarding,” Hoerner added. “A lot of our success came from our team unity. If you put that as your first priority, the rest of it kinda falls together.”
For Peacock, the high finishes were a testament to the hard work his athletes had put this season and he hopes future runners take notice and continue that tradition.
“Hard work is a lot easier to swallow if you find a way to have fun doing it, and these guys did just that. They did it all year long. If you work hard and can make it fun, you are going to do pretty well,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable what they do as a team and what they do as individuals. It is a hard sport and it is not for everybody, but if you can’t find some joy in it, then maybe you should take up something else.