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LAUREL — One knee injury changed the course of Levi Taylor’s life forever.

As a freshman in Laurel’s football program, Taylor tore his meniscus and a doctor said he should give up contact sports. He did, and opted for the cross country route instead.

Weird how things work out.

Already a distance runner in track that year, Taylor’s move to cross country was seamless. His sophomore year he placed eighth at the State A cross country meet before winning it all as a junior.

Now a senior, Taylor is gunning for his second consecutive individual title this Saturday at the state meet in Missoula while hoping to guide Laurel to a team title as well. Coming into the season, the latter was his biggest goal.

“I thought our team would be really good, so definitely one of our goals was for our team to get closer groupings together (in placing) and it’s what we’re getting better at,” Taylor said. “For me, I’d like to win state again (too).”

Taylor has also enjoyed the challenge of chasing the state’s fastest distance runner, Ben Perrin of Class AA Kalispell Flathead.

“I’ve run against him three times,” Taylor said. “The first race, he beat me by like 40 seconds, second race by like 20 seconds and then the last time I raced him he beat me by eight.”

While Taylor won’t race Perrin on Saturday, those marks give him something to chase as he looks for his second individual title. Taylor’s personal best in cross country is 15:51 for 3.1 miles, a mark he achieved in Helena this year.

Taylor said the feeling has been melancholy knowing that his high school cross country season is coming to a close.

“I still have track, so I know when track comes around I’ll start feeling it a little,” the soft-spoken senior said.

“He’s had such a special career,” Laurel cross country coach Amy Caldeira added. “He’s an incredibly hard worker and a great role model at practice. It’s really perpetuated a tradition for our whole team because everybody follows what he does and his work ethic. He’s been a blessing for our whole team.

“As a runner his form has improved so much. As a person, he’s really opened up. He’s a really shy kid and I think we might’ve said 10 words to each other his freshman year because he just wasn’t that kid and it’s been fun to see him grow socially as well and become more outgoing. He’s a fun kid to be around and it’s been a blessing to see that growth not just as an athlete but as a person.”

Once his high school career is done, Taylor will compete at Nike Cross Regionals Northwest on Nov. 10 in Boise, Idaho. If Taylor places in the top five, he’ll advance to Nike Cross Nationals on Dec. 1 in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s in the back of my mind but I’m so focused on state with it being the last (high school) meet as a team,” Taylor said. “Boise is going to be a race by myself. I’m not going to have anyone on my team. So this last race as a team in Montana, it’s going to be fun.”

Though he played football in middle school, Taylor gave cross country a chance in fourth through sixth grades. But he enjoyed the gridiron, so he stayed on that path until the injury occurred.

“After my track season from my eighth grade to freshman years my times really dropped so I knew I should do cross country,” he said about making the switch. “I always loved (football) in middle school and all of my friends did it.”

When he got the news that he couldn’t play football anymore, Taylor said the move was an easy one.

“I was kind of like, ‘I’ll do cross country,’” Taylor said. “Wasn’t that big of a deal.”

And away he went.

Along with his cross country accomplishments, Taylor has placed in the 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs every year of high school. He placed sixth and third in the 1,600 his first two years, while crossing the finish line at fourth and second in the 3,200. Then, during his already breakout junior year, he won both races.

“Looking back, I’ve put in so much hard work that it’s finally paying off,” Taylor said.

“I think we knew by the end of his freshman year of track that he was a special kid and we were going to see some great things,” Caldeira said. “It doesn’t feel like an end for him. I just know he has so much bigger and better things coming, so to me (this weekend) is a celebration of all the great things he’s done. I’m won’t be sad because I’m so happy for him. He’s realized so many cool things.

“If he keeps the drive and the energy he has, he’s going to go amazing places in college.”

Taylor is also continuing a legacy of standout male distance runners from Laurel, previously paved for him by Patrick Casey and Ty Mogan.

“It’s just so awesome to see my name up there with Pat but I know he’s gotten a lot better when he left high school,” Taylor said. “Same with Ty, he’s gotten super fast and I hope I can do the same and follow in their footsteps.

“I definitely looked up to Ty in middle school. I’d look at him and watch him in track and see all of their records and I always just tried to chase those as much as I could.”

Mogan has served as a role model for Taylor as well, with the two creating a friendship over time. Whenever Mogan is back from Montana State, the two will go on runs together and catch up.

“He does everything right and I just try to mirror him and do whatever he does,” Taylor said.

Taylor also played varsity basketball for the Locomotives last year, but said he does not plan on doing that this year, mainly to focus on track. Running is where his future is, and Taylor said he is currently looking at Boise State and Montana State as far as college options. Taylor hopes to go into engineering, something both schools offer.

But with state this weekend, Taylor hopes to put a bow on his stellar career, with one particular factor driving him.

“Just making my family proud and everyone around me like the community and everything,” Taylor said. “My dad and my mom are really big supporters and they come to every meet. I like doing it for kind of a smaller community because it’s more like a family when you’re in a smaller school and town.”

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Email Kyle Hansen at kyle.hansen@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @khansen406

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