Just past the two-mile mark at the Capital City 7 of 7 cross country meet in Helena on Oct. 7, Glacier senior Sam Ells accelerated almost imperceptivity.
The race, which pits each member of a seven-person team against their equivalent competitors (i.e. the No. 7 runners are in one race, the No. 6 runners are in the next etc.), featured the top runner from 35 schools, including all but one in Class AA.
Ells spent the first mile of the race, which he ran in 5:04, sitting behind a half dozen of the state’s best runners, all of whom are contenders for a state title on Oct. 23.
With a slight push on the gas pedal, Ells left them all behind, even as Hellgate’s Finneas Colescott tried to hang on for a quarter mile. Ells crossed the line in 15:51 followed by Colescott five seconds later. Sentinel’s Tanner Klumph, the top returner from last year’s state meet, finished sixth in 16:26.
“I felt pretty strong and relaxed for most of the race,” Ells said. “I felt confident that I could push to the end once I pulled away.”
“I think this gives us a lot of confidence that Sam is at a high level of fitness and is ready to roll the rest of the season,” Glacier head coach Cody Moore said after the meet. “He’s got good racing instincts; he knows when he can push and when to be patient and it shows with his wins.”
Ells has won four of the five races he’s participated in this year, only losing the Mountain West Classic where he was fifth overall, and the second Montanan to Klumph. At a meet in Butte last month, Ells broke the Glacier school record, set by 2019 state champion Simon Hill, running 15:41.
(Incidentally, Hill and several of his University of Montana were in Helena last week cheering on Ells, which he said gave him the extra boost needed to finish strong.)
In the Butte meet, Ells also bested all the Class AA competition, taking his first win over Sentinel’s Klumph, the pre-season favorite after a runner-up finish in 2020 and a pair of second place finishes on the track this spring.
Winning races isn’t anything new to Ells — in 2020 he won back-to-back meets at Rebecca Farm, and never finished lower than fifth during the regular season. His state meet was an unfortunate fluke where he finished outside the top 25 due to an injury he received playing soccer the week before. He’s still in the starting lineup for the Wolfpack on the pitch this year, but applies an extra layer of caution.
“I think he learned a lot getting injured playing soccer last year and I think he’s realized more of his potential in cross country this year,” Moore said. “Overall I trust Sam and I trust (soccer coach Ryan) Billiet to make the right calls.”
Moore is also quick to point out that Ells’ soccer career has been instrumental in developing his ability as a distance runner. Ells runs about 30 miles a week, a low amount for a runner of his caliber, but makes up for it at soccer practices and games.
“I think it sets him up super well to go on to the next level,” Moore said. “He works hard when he’s at practice, but he’s only practicing with us a few days a week — he’s got such a wide range of athletic ability and he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.”
In the girls races at the Helena meet, the Class AA powerhouses all performed as expected, with Flathead High School’s Lili Rumsey Eash putting up the fastest time by a local runner by clocking 19:31 in the top race.
Among the Class A schools, Columbia Falls showed that their runner-up finish in last year’s state meet was no fluke, as they took second to Class A powerhouse, and defending champion, Hardin.
Senior Hannah Sempf finished third at state last year and is the top returner in Montana, but she has some challenge from within her own team. Siri Erickson, a sophomore who’s older sister Lara was a double state champion on the track, has the fastest time of the year, though just by a second. Erickson and Sempf currently have the fourth and sixth fastest times respectively in all of Class A, and in Helena, despite running in different races, finished only three seconds apart.
“It’s so helpful when you have kids of like ability that are also competitive,” Wildkats coach Jim Peacock said. “They get so much more quality out of every workout, every race and every day.”
Peacock said that after last season, Sempf put in a solid winter, spring and summer of training, and is “light years ahead” of where she was a year ago. Even more amazing is that Sempf only began running as sophomore.
“When she joined cross country she swore up and down that she wasn’t a runner,” Peacock said. “Now she came into her senior season strong, fit and able to walk into a race with the confidence knowing she’s put in the time and is as strong as anyone out there.”
Sempf has benefited from having a high-caliber training partner for two years — Lara Erickson last year, and this year sophomore Siri.
“There was no surprise that Siri is as strong as she is,” Peacock said. “The girls ran together every day this summer, and they do all the little things on their own, the things you don’t ask them to do. Siri will go home and do core workouts and all the recovery she needs to do.”
While Peacock readily admits that anything can happen at a state cross country meet, he’s happy with how the entire Wildkats squad looks with 10 days left in the season. He knows Hardin is a strong, competitive team looking to defend their state title, but Columbia Falls is a quality match runner-for-runner.
“I have a lot of faith and confidence in all the runners I work with, and it’ll be a lot of fun to watch the kids race,” he said. “And ultimately, my only real expectation is that they do the best they’ve got.”
“If they do their best on any given day, where that shakes them out in the race is all we can ask for.”