MISSOULA — Between the A, B and C classes for track and field, teams on the western side of the state return five individual athletes who took home state gold in one or more events.
Most of them hail from Class B Bigfork.
Last year, the Valkryies dominated the field, racking up 109 points. Second-place Baker had 53 points by the meet's end in Butte.
Every single state champion the Valkryies had last season — and all but one state placer — return for 2018.
And coach Sue Loeffler thinks her team could be even better this year.
"My throwers will be a year older, for one, which they didn't even enter into the mix last year," Loeffler said. "I had one girl that just really blossomed last year at state. She's going to surprise a lot of people. I just don't know about the new kids. We've got more numbers out than we've ever had."
But Loeffler is knocking on wood and hopes that her athletes don't fall victim to injuries like two years ago.
"Staying healthy's the key," Loeffler said. "The year before we won, we should have won it that year, but I lost both my distance runners to injuries. We still ended up second, but we should have won it again. We just have to stay healthy."
Bryn Morley, one of the athletes who was injured and missed state in 2016, swept all three distance events last year and is looking for a repeat. Morley is competing at an invite-only track meet in Arizona this weekend.
Haile Norred, a senior this year, won both the 200- and 400-meter dashes, while finishing second in the 100-meter dash. Norred could sweep the three sprint events this year.
And all four members of both the 400- and 1,600-meter relays return to action this spring as well.
The only Valkryie placer not returning is Gabby Eaton, who placed second in pole vault last season.
Class A is much more open.
Of the 18 athletes who finished either first or second last year at state, only two return to the field this spring: Corvallis' Ridge Albright in high jump and Calla Haldorson in discus.
The Corvallis girls, led by Haldorson and graduated Heidi Nisly, took home the runner-up trophy last season, but repeating that success could be tough after losing so much talent to graduation.
There are other talented girls coming back for at least one more go in Class A, as Frenchtown's Emilie Hinrichs looks to defend her high jump title; Stevensville's Megan Pendergast, a senior, placed second in the 100-meter hurdles last year and Polson's Bea Frissell, a junior, came in second in the 3,200 meters as a sophomore.
The highest-placing team on the boys' side last year from western Montana was Columbia Falls. The Wildcats placed fourth at state last year. Two of their three state stars left the team due to graduation, but reigning runner-up in the pole vault — Ben Windauer — is back on the runway for his senior season.
Darby, which took home the runner-up trophy on the boys' side of Class C, is faced with a similar challenge to Corvallis. The Tigers' veteran leaders in Evan Duggan, Kye McCollaum and John Beckers all were seniors last season.
The team race is pretty open on the boys' side too, as Mark Estes, who swept the sprint races for Drummond last season, now attends Kalispell Glacier. His times from 2017 would have contended with the top runners at the AA level too.
With all the Darby departures and Estes' migration north, there are still several top contenders from last season to watch out for this year.
All four boys on Seeley-Swan's state championship 1,600-meter relay — Logan Robinson, Hunter Shelmerdine, Keaton Johnson and Logan Maughan — are still on the team. Maughan also placed second in the 800-meter run last year. And Brock Cantrell-Field, a junior, out of St. Regis placed second in Class C's discus as a sophomore.
There are several contenders back in action for the Class C girls as well.
Plains' Jessica Thompson took home gold in both the shot put and discus last year. She'll be one to watch considering she topped the second-place finishers last season at state by at least two feet in both throwing events.
Drummond's Morgan Radtke is back for one more season and looks to better her second-place finish in the high jump.
Arlee's Natalie Yocum placed second in the 1,600-meter run last year as a sophomore. Darby's Gracie Lang crossed the line second as well in the two-mile as a freshman. Charlo's Allie Delaney finished second in the 300-meter hurdles last year as a sophomore.