Bigfork’s Makena Morley, perhaps the most decorated prep runner in state history, plans to keep her talents local next year.

The high school senior from the Flathead Valley, Montana’s all-class state record holder in cross country and a three-time champion, verbally committed to the University of Montana on Thursday.

“It’s awesome that I get to represent the state that supported me so much during my high school career,” said Morley, who confirmed her commitment to the Missoulian Thursday afternoon. “Now I get to represent them all in college.”

Morley will run cross country in the fall for the Grizzlies as well as compete in distance events for the track and field team in the winter and spring.

Morley smashed the state girls’ cross country record a year ago – in Missoula, in fact – by finishing in 16 minutes, 35.31 seconds. The previous best was 15 seconds behind that and set by Kalispell Flathead’s Zoe Nelson in 2002.

Along with a trio of State B cross country titles and Mountain West Classic wins, Morley also has two individual track championships in each the 800, 1,600 and 3,200-meter races. And she won the Western Regional Foot Locker Cross Country Championship last December and placed eighth at nationals the next week in San Diego.

With all those golds and a hoard of major programs hunting her, how did the Grizzlies pull off such a coup?

“I know, I’ve been telling people UM has been one of my top three, but I just didn’t know if I’d be going there or not,” said Morley, also a three-time recipient of the state’s Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year award.

“I’ve gotten some people that are really excited and some others that are, ‘What? You’re going there?’ ”

Morley made just three official visits: Utah and Northern Arizona in the early fall and Montana the first weekend of October. But dozens of other programs contacted her beginning over the summer. Her academics – Morley had a 4.0 GPA in high school before chemistry derailed that – and athletic prowess had teams like Stanford and Yale calling.

“I think I’m stressed out now? Yeah, no,” Morley said playfully of ruling those schools out.

Montana and its coaching staff appealed to Morley even before she set foot on campus – “I know they can take me to where I want to go,” Morley said of cross country coach Collin Fehr and track and field program director Brian Schweyen – but her official visit sealed her decision.

“When I walked onto campus, it just felt right,” said Morley, who cancelled visits to Iowa State and Boise State following her trip to Missoula. “I got that gut feeling that this was the place.”

Morley had anticipated waiting until April to sign her National Letter of Intent, but Montana and Missoula’s case was strong enough to sway her early. She may now sign during the early period that begins Nov. 12.

“Every time I go to Missoula – I love the running community first of all – I’m super happy,” she said. “I just love it there.”

The close proximity to her home near Bigfork means Morley can continue to keep tabs on her younger siblings’ prep running careers as well. Current junior Logan Morley finished second at state for the Bigfork boys last October and freshman sister Bryn is well on her way to chasing down some of Makena’s records.

Makena still has a few weeks to improve some of those numbers, though. The all-class cross country meet is in Helena on Oct. 25 and Morley will get one more shot at Footlocker Nationals – her main priority for her senior season.

With a college decision behind her, she expects her performances on the course to improve here at the tail end of the season.

“I didn’t realize it was stressing me out that much until now; I feel like 100 pounds just lifted off me,” said Morley, who lost her first two prep cross country races in-state in her career this fall to Kalispell Glacier phenom freshman Annie Hill. “I think it’s going to be so helpful. Actually I know, I don’t think. I haven’t been able to race at my full potential.”

Then all that’s left is getting some Griz gear.

“I don’t have any yet,” she laughed. “But my sister has lots.

‘Makena, I’ll give you my shorts to wear!’ ” she cheered in her best Bryn Morley impression.

Reporter AJ Mazzolini can be reached at (406) 523-5298, at anthony.mazzolini@missoulian.com, @AJMazzolini or missoulapreps.com.

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