It's been a long wait for track athletes all across the state of Montana, but the wait has been a little longer for Helena High.
That's because while many teams were able to open their seasons last week, Helena High will have to wait until Tuesday, weather permitting, to open their season with a dual meet against the Butte High Bulldogs.
"The first two meets are really just going to be competitive practice," Helena High girls head coach Jesse Zentz said. "I know the kids are super nervous, with it being I think 682 days since our last meet by Tuesday, so that part of it, just shaking that rust off and having fun, we have really put an emphasis on that these first few meets: show up, compete and just have fun."
Many teams across the state are trying to figure out what they have and the Helena High girls are too. Yet, it's a little easier when you have a two-time state champion in your lineup, as well as another two-time placer.
That's Odessa Zentz and Kylie Hartnett, who are both state champions in their own right.
Zentz became a two-time state champion as a freshman, winning both the 400 and 800-meter dash for the Bengals back in 2019 at the Class AA state track meet.
Last season, she wasn't able to defend her title due the season being canceled, but will be among the favorites again and is also an All-State runner in cross country.
Hartnett, who won a cross country state title as an individual at the 2019 Class AA state meet, was second in the 3,200 as a freshman back in the spring of 2019, as well as third in the 1,600, giving the Bengals two talented runners to build around.
"We are loaded on the track," Jesse Zentz said. "We have Odessa returning the 400 and 800 as a state champion. Kylie coming back in the two mile and the mile, as well as a bunch of young sprinters. Our (1,600 relay) is six seconds faster than two years ago just based on times. So I'm excited. There is a lot of ability but even the kids who are new to track are showing up and competing and they are going to keep getting better and better."
The junior class is very strong for Helena, but Liz Heuiser is one senior who should have an impact in the field events for the Bengals this season and she was a state qualifier in the triple jump. Building depth in the field events is a focus for HHS, but it's secondary, especially early in the season.
"Our approach is really for the kids to show up, compete and have fun," Zentz said. "If we show up with good effort and have a good attitude, I think things will fall into place."
Despite a year off from track, which was canceled along with all spring sports due to COVID-19, participation was holding strong according to Zentz and Helena High boys head coach Manny Garza.
"It's been really great to see the kids out and active again," Garza said. "We have a lot of new faces. Most of these kids were just freshmen or sophomores so it's kind of like starting over again, but it's just good to get out and get started again."
While the Bengals likely would have had some strong performances last year at state, including a 400-meter relay team that could have won the Class AA state title, Garza said this first meet against Butte is just about evaluating his athletes.
"It's just going to be great to see the kids out competing for the first time in more than a year," Garza said. "We are trying to figure out where to put kids and we'll have some things to work on after that meet, but it will just be fun to get back out there."
Both teams will get a busy week started on Tuesday at Vigilante Stadium against Butte High. The first events will start at 3:30 p.m.
Helena will also host Missoula Big Sky on Friday at 3:30 p.m.