MISSOULA — With a sudden surge when it mattered most, McKay Hunter served notice Wednesday there's more than one cross country program in Missoula.
Then minutes after his individual win, his Sentinel teammates reinforced that notion.
In the most poignant moment of the afternoon, Hunter used his kick to edge Hellgate's Ian Curtis for the boys championship in the annual Runner's Edge City Meet at Linda Vista Golf Course. His time of 16 minutes, 27.59 seconds was less than a second faster than Curtis at 16:28.23.
Sentinel also edged Hellgate in the boys team competition, under-scoring the Knights by seven points, 27-34. It marked only the second time in the last dozen years Hellgate failed to sweep the team titles.
"I'm loving it right now," Hunter said after claiming his first varsity win. "It's just one heck of a day for us.
"I love all the guys. I ran at Big Sky for a while and love the Big Sky team. Hellgate guys are always strong. I love the Hellgate team. But I love my Spartans and we ran good today."
Hunter was surrounded by Hellgate runners in the lead group at the midway point of the race. Rather than allowing the situation to rattle him, he used it to his advantage.
"They're really good at running in a pack," he said. "I just kind of hung on them. I knew they'd run great today and I decided to hang back.
"Then going into the last mile I was able to pass (Hellgate's) Lukas (Horejsi) and Dax (Summers). For a while it was just me and Ian (Curtis) battling it out and he was moving man. He kept me on my toes."
Horejsi finished third in 16:39.42 and Summers fourth in 16:43.85. Sentinel grabbed the next four spots thanks to the strong performances of Noah McNelis (16:55.31), Calvin Quindry (16:58.35), Otto MacDonald (16:59.15) and Tanner Klumph (17:03.85).
"It's been a long season and our team has worked super, super hard," Hunter said. "We wanted to come out and run a really good race today and we did exactly that. I'm really excited about that."
To no one's surprise, the Hellgate girls bested Sentinel and Big Sky by a comfortable margin. The Knights are a co-favorite along with Bozeman for the State AA team title next week and on Wednesday they showed why.
Not only did Ember Stratton win the girls race in 18:39.09, Hellgate claim the top five spots. Elise Stearns was second in 18:44.09, Ella Degrandpre third in 18:54.29, Abby Kendrick fourth in 19:22.85 and Sage Brooks fifth in 19:24.17.
Stratton, who attended high school in suburban Portland last year, has sky-high expectations after faring well in national meets in 2016. All things considered, the senior was rather subdued after her individual win in 18:39.09.
"I went out in like a 5:40 and then it was just harder for me to finish today," she said. "I just had a cold for a while that was kind of annoying and I'm still coming back from my back injury.
"I'm finally getting to train fully for six days out of the week, so I'm happy about that. I took a year off from racing because of back injuries so I'm just happy to get free from injury."
It's not often a team so thoroughly dominates the way the Knights did in claiming nine of the top 10 spots. Chalk it up to hard work, depth and coaching.
"We didn't really directly say it, but we knew it would be possible," Stratton said of her team claiming the top five spots. "We just wanted to go out and run hard and get a good workout in today.
"I'm excited for state," she added, alluding to the biggest meet of the season at the UM Golf Course on Saturday, Oct. 20. "There's some really good girls in the race so I'm excited to have another chance at racing them. We want to try to get the team win."
For now, Stratton is just enjoying her final high school season wearing Hellgate colors.
"All my teammates are really awesome and nice," she said. "We have a strong bond and the coaches help push us and we all feel like a part of the team."