BUTTE — Montana Tech formed a track and field team during a pandemic which presented obstacles to begin the season. But the team prevailed with a national champion and six all-conference athletes to conclude the inaugural year.
While ending the first season with impressive accomplishments, the season did not begin smoothly. The indoor track season was extremely limited and some athletes quit the team mid-year.
"The hardest part moving from cross-country to track was if we were even going to have a tracks season," Montana Tech coach Zach Kughn said. "We had a couple people quit mid-semester, but for the ones who had their head on this, they did great."
The team lacked excitement during the indoor season, according to Kughn. Only three athletes participated during the indoor season while the future remained uncertain.
But once the outdoor track season began and a close-to-normal schedule was confirmed, the team of just ten athletes found the excitement they needed to thrive.
"Once we had something that resembled a full season, we thought 'alright, our training has a purpose now'," Kughn said. "It took a while for that to click because everyone missed competition in their senior year of high school. Honestly from there, we lucked out."
Kughn said the team was fortunate to compete in unusually good weather all season long. The training, excitement and weather helped the team reach a turning point in Spokane during the Sam Adams Classic on April 17.
The Orediggers faced Division I and Division II competition in Spokane, which was also the only event where they competed near-sea level. The team as a unit performed well, and Becca Richtman won the 10,000m steeplechase with a time of 10:34:54.
"It was like every athlete went out and made the most of the opportunity," Kughn said. "All of our local Montana meets felt like the same thing over and over, so competing in something new was helpful."
"It showed that we're not just a team that's starting out," Kughn continued. "We're here and we're a competitive threat, even with a small team."
Riley Crissman made the national qualifier after her performance in Spokane, after running the 10,000m in a time of 37:59:53. Crissman finished tenth in the NAIA National Championship's 10,000m event in a time of 36:55:98.
Becca Richtman, who has one year of eligibility remaining, won the NAIA National Championship in the 3,000m steeplechase event, and also ran the 5,000m event at the national level. Crissman and Richtman both earned all-conference honors.
"Obviously you can't do much better than that (a national championship)," Kughn said. "We got a national championship and there's only a handful of schools that can say that. We're on the map already and especially on the conference level, we were tearing it up."
Three of the four men on the Montana Tech track team, Ian Barville, River Sheppard and Jake Vetter, received all-conference honors. Carlin Manning also received all-conference honors alongside Crissman and Richtman on the women's side.
Training does not stop for the team despite the end of the season, though. Those participating in both cross-country and track have already started practicing again, while track-only athletes have just a few weeks to take it easy.
"We have small numbers, but such we had such a high number of our athletes be successful, it's hard to feel bad about things," Kughn said. "Richtman is a great example to the rest of our team. She's the example of high-mileage, proper workouts and proper sacrifice."
The future also looks bright for the Orediggers as they expect a dramatic increase in participation for next season. The team has 53 athletes signed up, compared to the 10 that competed this season.
Kughn has recruited the athletes, many of whom are from Montana. 14 Montana all-state athletes have signed with Montana Tech, including four state champions. Among the signees is Manhattan standout Wyatt Barney, who won the 400 and 800 meter events in the Class B state tournament last week.
"We're definitely celebrating the success of this year, but it shows that next year we're going to be all over the place," Kughn said. "We'll be tearing up the track every meet and in every event."
"It's hard to think about how this year could've gone better, but we knew that this season was setting the standard for the future," Kughn said. "Next season our team will be five times bigger than what it was this season, and the future is what we're really excited about."