HARDIN – The past two years, the Hardin Bulldog girls cross country team has somehow flown under the radar.
A weird situation, considering how they have quietly taken the scene by storm, and are coming into the new season as the two-time defending Class A state champs.
But they like keeping it low-key. They know what they’re capable of doing, and the expectations are now sky-high throughout the program.
Head coach Cindy Farmer is entering her 20th year as a teacher at Hardin. Having coached the cross country program over the past decade and a half, the two state championships marked Farmer’s first as the head coach.
The girls admit that winning it all two years ago was a bit surprising, while last year’s title expectations were higher. But both were just as sweet.
“It was amazing. The first year we didn’t really know we were going to win it and then we did and it was crazy,” junior Journey Erickson said. “Last year we were working for it every practice. That was our goal. We were still very excited about it.”
“Every year you come into the season and we have high expectations and high goals. You always want to have that goal of winning a state championship,” Farmer added. “It was just a long process of doing that. We felt like we could compete with anybody, but it was going to depend on our fifth and sixth runner.
“At state (two years ago), we knew Whitefish was going to be the team to beat. The girls stepped it up.”
Funny enough, when the teams were finding out where they placed, the announcer said, “I could say the Bulldogs, but that wouldn’t help you guys” for the winner. Both Hardin and Whitefish sport the same mascot, so it added a moment of suspense before Hardin was eventually announced to have won its first girls title since 1991. Hardin grad Madisan Chavez paced the team with her sixth-place finish that year.
“It was unbelievable. We all just broke out into tears and you kind of realized that cross country was more of a team sport than individual,” Erickson said. “You really realize the team is what got you there. You couldn’t have done it without each other.”
Erickson explained that the team was running for fun and there was no pressure back in 2016. But with all of that, success was forming.
As far as last year, the team expected to be right back in the mix of things. But the mood stayed light and focused.
“We have those high expectations and we want people to be stepping up and filling those shoes,” Farmer said. “When you have those runners that have experienced that, they step into that role and they bring the others along.
“We had some young kids, and, well, they all were young. So for Journey and Charlie and Sydney Little Light, who was a senior a year ago, and just having that experience and leadership really carries over to the rest of the team.”
That mixture of youth and experience is a similar theme to this year’s team. Erickson, along with fellow junior Charlie Bellrock, are the team’s oldest returning placers. Both have been key components on both title teams, with Bellrock placing 14th as a freshman and 18th as a sophomore while Erickson finished 25th as a freshman and 16th her sophomore year.
“It felt really great,” Bellrock said about contributing early. “It meant a lot and I was just happy to run with those girls. It was the best first year ever.”
As far as youth, the Bulldogs return five of their seven state runners from a year ago including four placers with sophomores Khylah Two Leggins and Libby Nedens contributing to the Bulldog’s scoring. As freshmen, Two Leggins placed 10th a year ago while Nedens finished 15th. Little Light, who graduated, finished ninth overall to lead the girls in 2017.
Those younger runners who have rounded out the team the past two years have been paramount to Hardin’s success.
“It’s a big jump coming up from middle school to high school,” Farmer said. “Last year, I think that state championship was a lot sweeter for the girls because we had a lot of adversity. Everyone was looking at them to repeat. We had a lot of injuries during the season. It was just, ‘Can we pull this together and have everyone healthy in time for state.’ They just had mind-over-matter and won it mentally with their toughness.”
“We practiced on running as a pack a lot last year,” Bellrock added. “At state, that’s what we did and it paid off again and we went back-to-back and it was great.”
Bellrock explained that when the team was waiting for the team scores to be announced, the team was attending to one of their runners who was feeling ill after the race. Nobody, aside from Bellrock, was listening to the final results getting announced, so she broke the happy news.
“They said the second-place finisher’s name and I was like, ‘You guys we got first!’ And they all looked at me like what,” Bellrock explained. “And then when they realized we got first again, everyone started crying again and it just like the reaction last year.”
Along with the four returning placers, sophomore Madison Harmer was the team’s sixth varsity runner a year ago. Her, along with junior Ivery Fritzler and sophomore Marion Hugs round out the team’s top seven so far.
Farmer's program is now as strong as it’s ever been. Farmer estimates she has over 80 boys and girls out for the team. And with the last two seasons resulting in first-place finishes on the girls' side, the goal is keep that streak of success going.
“Just work hard every single day and when you’re tired, you have to remember that every other team is working just as hard as you,” Erickson said. “So it just depends on who wants it more and we really want it.
“The team looks strong. I feel like we’re ready and we’ll be ready by the end. We’re just kind of having fun and be stress-free.”
“We all want another one,” Bellrock added. “We all want to go for a three-peat.”