MISSOULA — Montana waited 10 years to host the Big Sky Championships, and based off of Wednesday's early showing, the Grizzlies have been ready to perform on the big stage at home.
Wednesday featured a strong start to the Big Sky Conference outdoor track and field championships for the Grizzlies. In addition to good weather, six Grizzlies kicked off the four-day Championships with the multi-event, and Montana put up more points than any other school.
More than halfway through the women's heptathlon, Griz senior Erika McLeod, a Butte native, is in a familiar spot: on top of the leaderboard. McLeod placed in the top four of three events, including winning the high jump, and has a lead of 113 points. On the men's side, Montana has two of the top three point scorers in the decathlon, with Brendan Thurber-Blaser 134 points behind the leader and Josh Riley 162 back.
"We had an incredible first day," UM head coach Brian Schweyen said. "We had six athletes competing and six athletes competing incredibly hard. As a coach, you can't ask for anything more."
McLeod opened the day by placing third in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 14.64 seconds, but nothing compared to her display in the high jump.
McLeod blew away the competition with a jump that was a personal record and the fourth-best jump in the Big Sky this season — by all athletes, not just heptathletes — and ranks in the top 35 in the NCAA West Region.
McLeod also was fourth in the 200 meters (24.94) and seventh in the shot put (35 feet, 1 inch). Having the pressure of everyone gunning for her is something she is familiar with — and successful at overcoming. The senior won a Big Sky title in the heptathlon in 2016 and has won the pentathlon — the indoor version of the event — three times, including in February. She'll try to add to that list on Thursday.
"She is on her conference game like she always has been," Schweyen said. "Through all of the battles and missed training, she has stepped it up again, like she always does. Erika killed it today."
Thurber-Blaser won the shot put with a top throw of 40 feet, 11.75 inches, before clearing 6 feet, 6 inches in the high jump and placing second. Riley had a great afternoon, reaching 6 feet, 4.75 inches in the high jump (third) and running a 49.95 in the 400 meters. Riley won his 400 heat by several strides and finished second overall.
"When Brendan and Josh compete together, they feed off each other so well," Schweyen said. "They're really, really good, and it showed."
Thurber-Blaser, who redshirted last spring but placed ninth in the decathlon at the 2017 Championships, won the shot put, but his runner-up finish in the high jump was arguably bigger, clearing 6 feet, 6 inches on his final attempt to record a lifetime best.
Thurber-Blaser also ran a personal-record time of 11.25 seconds in the 100 meters (fourth), 52.63 in the 400 meters (eighth) and jumped 22 feet, 5.25 inches in the long jump (seventh).
"He's a competitor," Schweyen said of Thurber-Blaser. "He's been a little beat up, but he's been telling me, 'Coach, when it comes time for conference, I'll be ready. You can count on me.' He showed that."
Riley ran an 11.50 in the 100 meters (eighth) and threw 35 feet, 9.25 inches in the shot put (eight), but turned it on in the afternoon with his strong showings in the high jump and 400 meters, in addition to earlier in the long jump (22 feet, 10 inches to finish third).
As a sophomore in 2018, Riley placed fourth in the decathlon, including winning the 1,500 meters, an event that has still to take place.
"It was a PR first-day for Josh," Schweyen said. "He has confidence and he's ready to roll. He's going to be ready to have a great day tomorrow."
Despite being just a freshman, Aidan Diggs isn't far behind his veteran teammates. He is in sixth place out of 12 participants. Diggs had a great start to the day, recording three personal records. He placed third in the 100 meters (11.15) and fourth in the long jump (22-8.5). After a ninth-place showing in the shot put, Diggs bounced back with upper-half performances in the high jump (5 feet, 10.75 inches) and 400 meters (51.34).
"As a freshman, you're not really sure, especially in the multis, how they'll perform, but he had a great start and carried that through," Schweyen said. "He had an incredible day."
Arguably no one was better in the running events than Jansen Ziola. The talented redshirt freshman — who in indoor has twice finished in the top two in the pentathlon, winning a conference title in 2018 — started the day with a top finish in the 100-meter hurdles. Her time of 14.04 seconds was a lifetime best. She finished the afternoon by placing second in the 200 meters (24.57).
Ziola sits in fifth place entering Thursday, as she left some potential points on the board in the high jump (5 feet, 1.75 inches) and shot put (30 feet, 10.25 inches to place 15th). Still ahead for her, though, is the long jump — an event in which she ranks 12th in the Big Sky — and the 800 meters.
"The thing that I like about Jansen is that she knows how to put something behind her," Schweyen said. "She started the day with an incredible hurdles. She hit a little slump during the middle of the day, but she was able to put that behind her and have a tremendous 200."
Sophomore Jaree Mane is also in the upper-half of the heptathlon field, sitting in ninth place out of 18 competitors. Her best event came in the shot put, when she threw a top mark of 37 feet, 8.5 inches, finishing fourth. Mane also finished in the upper half in the high jump (5 feet, 1.75 inches to place seventh) and 200 meters (25.53 seconds for ninth). Overall, she recorded a lifetime best in all four events.
"Jaree has battled a lot of shin pain, more than almost any athlete I've seen, but every time I looked over at her it was PR, PR, PR, PR," Schweyen said. "That shows who Jaree is."
Montana's strong start didn't surprise Schweyen, who was overwhelmed this week by how his athletes were preparing for this meet.
"What I saw this week at practice was on another level, something I hadn't seen all season," Schweyen said. "When I came home from practice on Monday, I went home with the biggest smile on my face, because the things that happened were things I hadn't seen all outdoor season. The competitiveness was on another level, spirits were lifted, practice was incredible. That really got me excited for what we can do this week, and as the week progressed it got better and better.
"Today it advanced again. We had an incredible group of athletes cheering their teammates on, which fed into the great performances. This team has really come together and is showing what they're capable of. I'm really excited to see how it plays out over the next three days."
Individual champions in the heptathlon and decathlon will be crowned on Thursday afternoon. Action begins at 10 a.m. with the final five events of the decathlon — 110-meter hurdles, discus, 1,500 meters, javelin and pole vault — and three events of the heptathlon — long jump, javelin and 800 meters. Admission at Dornblaser Field is free.