By JOEL CARLSON
Montana freshman Makena Morley claimed her first conference title Saturday morning when she led from start to finish to win the Big Sky Conference cross country championship at the Cedar Ridge Golf Course in Cedar City, Utah.
She becomes Montana’s first cross country champion since Sabrina Monro won back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000.
The Montana men finished in sixth place, the women were seventh, but the story was Morley, who took the lead just seconds into the race and held it to the finish line, covering the five-kilometer course in a time of 17:45.
Weber State’s Ellie Child, who ran a 17:55, was the only other runner to break 18 minutes.
“That girl made a statement today,” said UM coach Collin Fehr. “She was strong and determined. She wanted it, and she let everybody know from the start that she wanted it and that someone was going to have to do something really special to take it away from her.
“It was kind of fun running around the course listening to all the talk in the crowd. Oh, they’ll catch her. She went out too hard. That’s too hard of a pace at 6,000 feet. They’ll get her. And they didn’t. The Weber girls made a big push together to try and close the gap, and they couldn’t.”
The Wildcats, ranked No. 27 in the nation, placed their top five in the top 15 overall to win their fourth title in the last five years, but none of them could catch Morley, the only freshman in the top 14.
“I went out hard to see how my legs were feeling,” said Morley. “If they were feeling great, then I was going to keep it going, which is how I usually like to run. If they weren’t feeling super good, I was going to hold back and stay with the pack a little more. They were feeling okay, so I just went for it.
“I never knew how far everybody was behind me, because I never look behind me when I’m running. I knew that they were just going to get stronger throughout the race, so I was like, Keep going Makena, keep it up.”
Idaho’s Kinsey Gomez (18:01) was third, Weber State’s Hailey Whetten (18:08) was fourth, Northern Arizona’s Melanie Townsend (18:12) was fifth. Defending champion Sarah Reiter (18:25) of Eastern Washington, who defeated Morley two weeks ago at NCAA Pre-Nationals in Louisville, Ky., was eighth.
Eastern Washington finished second behind Weber State. Northern Arizona, Idaho and Montana State rounded out the top five.
Freshman Emily Pittis finished 40th in a time of 19:37, freshman Jessica Bailey (19:42) was 43rd, sophomore Reagan Colyer (19:53) placed 51st, junior Lauryn Wate (19:55) was 52nd.
Montana moved up one spot from its eighth-place finish last fall.
“The women put in a solid effort today,” said Fehr. “They were seventh, but the women’s field as a whole was impressive today. It’s competitive. It was really motivating to see our girls push and be in the mix and compete.
“They really had a higher purpose in this race than just running for themselves. They wanted to run for each other, and they really committed to that. They wrote all their names down on their hands before the race so they never felt alone. They never gave up, and you can’t ask for more than that.”
The men’s team finished sixth and had the breakthrough race Fehr has been waiting for. Freshman Gavin Hasty finished 27th in a time of 26:53 over the eight-kilometer course. Sophomore Nathan Wellington was one spot behind in 26:54.
“The men were awesome. They were on it today. They were engaged, they were focused, they were fighting hard, and they never gave up,” said Fehr.
“The last few years we’ve raced okay, but we haven’t had everybody bring it on the same day. Today they brought it. Sixth place isn’t as nice as top three, but considering how competitive the field is, it’s a small victory but a big one for us.”
Rounding out the Grizzlies’ top five were sophomore Paden Alexander, 37th in 27:08, junior Adam Wollant, 50th in 27:37, and freshman Jonathan Eastwood, 63rd in 28:16.
Southern Utah placed its top five runners in the top 10 overall to snap Northern Arizona’s eight-year run atop the conference. The Thunderbirds went 1-2 behind Hayden Hawks, who ran a 24:56, and Mike Tate, who finished in 25:01.
Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, which finished second, claimed 10 of the top 11 individual spots.
The Thunderbirds and Lumberjacks were followed in the team standings by Weber State, Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Montana and Montana State. It was the first time the Grizzlies have topped the Bobcats at the Big Sky cross country championship since 2008.
“We beat Montana State, and we always kind of use that as a measuring stick,” said Fehr. “Jonathan was the only guy who had an off day, and he still battled through. The other guys were stellar. I had a feeling they were going to peak at this meet, and they did. It looked good.”
Morley and a member of the men’s team will compete on Friday, Nov. 13, at the NCAA Mountain Regional at Albuquerque, N.M.