MISSOULA — She hails from the same hometown as Evel Knievel and shares an important quality with the legendary stunt performer:

Erika McLeod is Butte tough.

The University of Montana track and field standout showed it once again Thursday at sunny Dornblaser Field. Sidelined by a calf injury that prevented her from going to indoor nationals in March, McLeod salvaged her senior outdoor season in a big way, winning the heptathlon in the Big Sky Conference Championships.

"Brian (Schweyen) always jokes with me that I'm like the tough one on the team because I'm from Butte," McLeod said of Montana's head track and field coach.

"I don't know if I necessarily agree with that, but I do have a lot of pride in representing my high school and the people there. When I need to be tough I guess I can be."

McLeod was out for six weeks prior to the outdoor season with a pulled calf muscle. This week marks the first that everything came together for her in her final outdoor season.

"Considering where she was a month ago and what she was able to do today, it's absolutely incredible," Schweyen said.

"Just her mental toughness coming to a championship meet without having the reps and the training and everything she felt she needed to put all that behind her and compete like she knows how to compete ... That's what impressed me the most. But in the same breath, I wasn't surprised."

McLeod set herself up for Thursday gold with a strong Wednesday, placing in the top four of three events and winning the high jump. She kept the momentum going Thursday morning by winning the long jump at 19 feet, 5 1/4 inches. Then she took fourth in the javelin (113-7) and sixth in the 800-meter running finale (2:23.64).

McLeod finished with 5,425 points. Idaho State's Ashley VanVleet-Sturgis was second with 5,261. Montana freshman Jansen Ziola, who won the 100 hurdles on Wednesday, took sixth with 5,027 points.    

McLeod was congratulated by Schweyen while sitting on the track following an exhausting 800 run. The moment brought her to tears.

"I keep thinking back to so many of my teammates and how we decided to take a redshirt season for this reason, so we could compete in this meet," said McLeod, who has two Big Sky outdoor heptathlon and three Big Sky indoor pentathlon titles to her credit. "It's just crazy the last few months, especially.

"It's been bittersweet, just reflecting on my career. I just wish I had better words because it's so special to end it here with a home crowd and my family and teammates and coaches, just everyone who came to watch."

Chances are McLeod has competed in her final collegiate heptathlon. However, Schweyen is not giving up hope for a berth in nationals.

"She needed to be around 5,550 points," the coach said. "Still, she's 23rd in the nation and there's some multis out there that haven't been finished and anything can happen.

"The top 24 go to nationals. I know she wanted to go and weirder things have happened. She still could get in."

McLeod, a psychology major who hopes to stay involved in track in the coming years as either an athlete or coach, will close out her final home meet by competing in the long jump Friday and 1,600 relay Saturday.

"Above everything else, I just love track and field," she said.

Montana made it a clean sweep in the multis, with redshirt sophomore Brendan Thurber-Blaser fighting from behind to win the decathlon late Thursday afternoon. Defending champion Donte Robinson of Portland State held a lead with three events remaining, then left the door open after no-heighting in the pole vault.

Robinson elected to pull out of the javelin and 1,500. 

Thurber-Blaser amassed 7,154 points, coming through with a second-place finish in the pole vault (14-2) and a fourth-place finish in the 1,500 (4:50.82). He had 22 more points than second-place Wyatt Thompson-Siporen of Montana State. Grizzly freshman Aidan Diggs took third with 6,790 points and junior teammate Josh Riley was fourth with 6,764 points.

"I'm pretty speechless right now," said Thurber-Blaser, an Oregon native who was hampered by a partially torn Achilles earlier this spring. "I wasn't the most-prepared guy here, but I wanted it."

The meat of the Big Sky meet will start Friday. Champions will be crowned in four men's and four women's field events along with the men's and women's steeplechase. The majority of the champions will be crowned Saturday.

Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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