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(Editor's note: Jeff Hedstrom is a representative at montanatrack.com, an online resource for Montana high school track and field results, records, etc. Jeff is compiling previews for each class and plans to publish them over the next couple of weeks. While we're confident in Jeff's research, if you see a mistake in any of his previews, please contact me at skimmel@billingsgazette.com.)

Spring is in the air, the crops are in the ground, the days are getting longer, and high school track and field takes center stage. So roll out the high jump mats, dust off those high hurdles, and check the battery on the old stop watch.

We will be addressing the biggest questions in track and field the next few days, starting with Class A. When I first looked at last year’s state results this spring, I was surprised to see how many graduated athletes will not be returning to the blacktop for their respective schools. This opens the door for many new athletes to step into the spotlight this season and make a difference for their schools. Marc Klimas, a Havre distance runner, said he’s excited for the upcoming track season.

“It’s exciting to see how fast everyone has gotten over the years,” Klimas said. “And it’s a great opportunity to run against the best nearly every week.”

Check out my weekly column coming in April, Elite Track & Field Lists, which will be published Wednesday of every week at gazprepsports.com.

BOYS

1. Who has a chance to take down the defending champions, Corvallis?

Corvallis won both boys and girls state championships last year, but the boys team will have to restock after losing nearly every athlete that placed at state with only one returnee, Branden Butt (discus). Two teams to watch in the race for the title are Billings Central (second last year) and Whitefish (fourth), who both will be returning the core of the talent from last year’s state meet and are the favorites on paper to battle for the ultimate prize. My darkhorse pick to contend is Dillon. I believe this team underachieved last year taking sixth, but with most of their all-state athletes back this spring they should be in the mix for a trophy.

2. In the sprints, which athletes have a chance to make some noise throughout the season and into late May?

The sprinters conversation on the boys side starts with Dillon’s Austin Carver who is the returning 100-meter state champion and took third in the 200. Carver will make a huge difference for his team, as he will compete for two individual championships along with several other returning athletes. Others to watch in all three sprints (100-, 200-, and 400-meters) are Carson Stevens (Stevensville), Jon Nissen (Laurel), and Logan Harwood (Whitefish). Harwood has the potential to challenge the Class A state record (48.1 seconds) in the 400. In the hurdles, the field is loaded with returning talents of Dakota Beatty (Whitefish), the defending 110 hurdles champion, Keaton Grove (Whitefish), Mick Paffhausen (Dillon), and George Smith (Billings Central).

3. With the loss of superstar Derrick Williams, who will step up in the distance races and fill the void with no returning state champion?

Distance races require plenty of endurance, speed, guts, and the will to win, but with the loss of Williams, who is left? Last fall at the state cross country championships, Tyler Mogan (Laurel), Jonathan Eastwood (Belgrade), and Fischer Gangemi (Whitefish) finished neck-and-neck with each other finishing second through fourth. Look for these three, along with Matt Keltgen (Glendive) and Easton Albert (Hamilton) to battle for a state placing in both the 1600 and 3200. The returning 800-meter class is a little weak, with the only placers being Travis Hayes (Polson) and Karill Apendaile (Hamilton) returning.

4. The jumps are by far the deepest returning field in Class A, does anyone have a chance to break a state record this year?

High jump will be the event to watch at state as three of top returnees (state champion Matt Hayes (Frenchtown), Dylan Hanser (Billings Central), and Devin Beggar (Miles City)) all had jumps over 6-foot-2 last year and could challenge the 6-10 State A Record. Long jump and triple jump are always exciting events as Abe Westfall (Hamilton), Hanser, Carson Stevens (Stevensville), Riley Nichols (Billings Central), and Josh Reed (Glendive) all will compete for podium spots in late May. Last year was a very good year for pole vault, with an all-senior podium class. Top-ten finishers Holden Garrison (Dillon), Sean Foley (Whitefish), and Taylor Schwartz (Glendive) do return this year.

5. Will Branden Butt (Corvallis) and Riley Sampson (Polson) rise to the top of the podium at this year’s state championships?

Two high-powered throwers headline this year’s preview of the throws, with both guys coming into this year as favorites (Butt in discus, Sampson in shot put) to win state. With no disrespect, this year’s field of throwers lacks the depth to go alongside Butt and Sampson, with only Kyle Moore (Dillon), Chris Emter (Livingston), Chance Zahn (Livingston), and Connor Rehm (Belgrade) returning from the three event podiums.

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GIRLS

1. State A Girls will likely be one of the most competitive championships in recent memory. Who will pony up to take down defending champion Corvallis?

The Corvallis girls won state last year going away by more than 50 points, but this year might be closer than the experts think. Corvallis will be the on-paper favorite, but Whitefish is fast and approaching as a legit contender to challenge Corvallis for the title. My expectations are whichever team can win the battle on the black top in the relays and middle-distance races will ultimately win state. Other teams that should be in the mix are Belgrade, Sidney, Lewistown, and Anaconda, whichever team emerges from the pack may take home a third-place trophy.

2. Can Marlow Schulz (Whitefish) repeat in her three sprinting events?

Marlow Schulz has a chance to help her team knock off Corvallis with plenty of points in her events. What is more impressive than what she did last year in Bozeman, though, was the way she won in convincing fashion in both the 200- and 400-meter races. Her competitors will have to challenge her if they want to win state as Anna DiGallonardo (Polson), Sadi Henerson (Corvallis), Lakyn Connors (Corvallis), and Sammy Elliott (Billings Central) return hungry to chase Schultz.

3. With 2012 100- and 300-meter hurdles state champion Kiera Bullock graduating, who are the next girls to step on top of the podium?

Lakyn Connors finished second and third in the 100 and 300 hurdles, respectively, last year. She will be among the favorites to win both hurdle races in May. Despite the loss of Bullock and Shelby Erdahl, this is a very deep field of hurdlers as Holly Anderson (Dillon), Kyra Fisher (Belgrade), Jada Scheffelmaer (Lewistown), Megan Hawkins (Livingston) all return with motives to improve on their 2012 times.

4. With both defending state champions back in the distance races – Corvallis’ Ayden Eickhoff (800, 1600) and Anaconda’s Olivia Wood (3200) – will we see a state record fall?

Eickhoff is almost four seconds away from the 800-meter State A record, and with her main competition in Sammy Elliott and Claudia Hewston (Polson) back in the same event, she might be pushed for the record. The other distance races will be nearly as close with Wood and Isabella Pape (Corvallis) back this spring. Aja Starkey (Polson) might not go out for track, but she would be another contender if she does. All were all in the mix to win state in 2012.

5. Lakyn Connors is the lone defending champion in the jumps. Who else can emerge in the always exciting set of events at state?

The jump events are always interesting to watch because this event in track is the most unpredictable. Surprise finishes happen nearly every year at state when nerves, weather, and luck can play a huge role. Connors has stayed relatively consistent the last couple of years, but challengers such as Marlow Schulz (Whitefish) and Dylan Fowler (Belgrade) could compete for the triple jump title. In the long jump, Shaina Healey (Billings Central) returns as a favorite as she took second last year, but Fowler and DiGallonardo could upset her in May. High jump lost many of the podium members to graduation, but still has a nice class of returnees as two favorites, Janessa Benjamin (Belgrade) and Jane Booth (Corvallis), will likely battle for a championship.

6. With 2012 pole vault champion Jalyssa Gorder and 2011 champion Mikayla Minow – both of Sidney – returning, how high could the bar be set this year?

Both Gorder and Minow return in one of the best pole vaulting classes in recent memory. When any track fan or coach mentions anything about pole vaulting, I immediately think of the Sidney program. Sidney athletes have claimed the last six pole vaulting crowns, all over 10 feet, and could be in for another one in 2013. Both girls went over 11 feet as they were pole vaulting indoors due to rain. Look for them to push for 12 feet in late May. Other girls that will be in the mix for a podium spot are Erin Harris (Sidney), Lexi Provost (Sidney), and Lacey Waid (Havre).

7. Can Whitney Leuenberger (Sidney) win two throwing events at 2013 state?

Leuenberger has won the last two shot put championships, so what is next for her to accomplish, a three-peat? She is also the favorite to win the discus title, but others that may contend are Carlie Jessop (Corvallis), Daryn Wolff (Sidney), Courtney Albright (Corvallis), and Lexi Budge (Laurel). There is no clear favorite in javelin as Erin Harris (Sidney), Bethany Rides Horse (Hardin), and Mia Estes (Anaconda) were all very close throughout the year and at state.

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