Ember Stratton

Missoula Hellgate senior Ember Stratton leads Bozeman’s Terra Trom in a race earlier this season. Stratton, finally healthy, will run in Saturday's state meet.

MISSOULA — Missoula Hellgate senior Ember Stratton had a blistering start to her high school cross country career in Oregon. She took second at state as a freshman, tied the state record as a sophomore and placed second at the Nike Cross Nationals.

The Missoula native whose family had moved to Portland was then slowed by injuries and uncertainty during her junior season. She first injured the sacrum in her lower back and took time off to heal.

Stratton returned, only to experience other issues in her back and hips, forcing her to sit out the rest of the season as she went to multiple doctors to figure out what was wrong. She eventually learned the issues came from her running form and posture, something she worked to fix while also skipping the spring track season unsure if she’d be able to run competitively again.

“I had some doubts,” Stratton admitted ahead of the state cross country meet on Saturday at the University of Montana Golf Course. “I was wondering why I got injured again because I couldn’t figure out what caused it, so that was really hard on me.

“I wanted to just be running injury free, so I think the hardest thing was figuring it all out. I was able to go to a good (physical therapist) to correct my form and learn how my injuries were connected. I think that made me more positive.”

Stratton’s family moved back to Missoula this year, and although she’s not at full strength, her addition has been a boon for the Knights, who are in serious contention to end Bozeman’s streak of 11 consecutive state titles.

In six races, Stratton has finished first once, second three times, third once and 13th once, which came at the multi-state Bob Firman Invitational. She’s been the Knights' top finisher in five of six races, with her second-place finish coming just 0.13 seconds behind the winner.

“I felt like the season’s been OK,” Stratton said. “I’m just happy to not be injured. I know it’ll take a while to get back into full fitness and back to the speed I had before. I’m just happy I can be running.”

Hellgate head coach Anders Brooker was cautious with pushing Stratton too hard when she came to the program. She started the season by doing cross training like riding a bike, going on an elliptical and swimming to stay in shape in August and September.

Stratton continued to work on her form and posture while getting back into running full time within the past month. Because she didn’t know how she would feel on the course, she came into the season focused on helping the team any way she could.

“The first thing she told me was, ‘I want to contribute to Hellgate cross country,’” Brooker recalled. “She just wanted to make a positive impact. That was the No. 1 thing. You can’t teach that.

“Then, it was, ‘I want to get back to running consistently.’ We’re at the point where she’s doing that. She’s got good perspective on what to expect. That shows what kind of kid she is because it’s all about the team.”

Brooker has recognized the competitive individual in Stratton, who switched her focus from soccer to cross country when she was in middle school. He’s also seen Stratton’s determination to get back to the runner she was before the injuries.

“I’m really excited with where she’s at,” Brooker said. “She’s a competitive, hard-working young lady. She wants to be further along than she is. As a coach, I’m excited where she’s at. Knowing where she came from and the lack of training she had the last couple years, we’re very excited for her. She’s ready to have a fast state meet, and we think she’ll be even better by regionals.”

Stratton wants to run in college and is in the middle of that process. Right now, her focus remains on the team heading into the state meet, where she's grateful to be doing what she loves most: running.

“I’m really excited for state this weekend,” Stratton said. “I’m excited because our team really wants to win. I’m excited because I feel training is going pretty good, so I feel I could help them. Individually, I hope to get top two for sure. But the team focus is No. 1.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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