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Ryegate's Kelsey Kirkpatrick may be the one to beat at State C
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette staff Kelsey Kirkpatrick of Ryegate breaks the tape ahead of two Lovell, Wyo., challengers to win the 100-meter race at this year's Stillwater Inivitational meet. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette staff While the Blue Demon star runs the 100 dash, she's a solid State C favorite in other competitions, such as jumping events.

Not everybody knows that Kelsey Kirkpatrick has been running competitively since the third grade, that she's held her own track practices, or even that she's one of the best track and field athletes this state has to offer.

Everybody is likely to realize that Saturday. By then Kirkpatrick's Ryegate Blue Demons will have made another run at the State C track title, in Missoula. The senior is a threat to score big in five events, and the solid favorite in the long jump, triple jump and 100-meter hurdles. Along the way, Ryegate could earn its first state track title.

She's also running the 100-meter dash and 300-meter hurdles, which present stiffer challenges from the likes of Geraldine's Toni Qunell. But after a couple years running behind Harlowton hurdler Erin Jones, then behind Manhattan Christian's Amanda DeHaan last season, this might be Kirkpatrick's time to shine.

"For one thing, she's a very hard worker," said David Bruner, who has been working with Ryegate track athletes for 15 years, the last four as the Blue Demons' head coach. "She's got a lot of talent, but she's the sort of person who would be the only one still out there after practice. She's the one running 200-meter intervals in January. On days she misses track, she'll call and find out her workout, and then hold her own practice.

"I think she's built just a huge base, and now she's reaping the benefits."

Career moves Kirkpatrick placed sixth in the 300-meter hurdles at state as a freshman. The next year the sophomore, whose family resides five miles south of Ryegate, started making serious hay. She edged Harlo's Jones in the triple jump, took third in the long jump and finished second only to Jones in both hurdles races.

Last year, she swept the jumps, placed second in the 300s and third in the 100 hurdles. She also didn't place in the 200, leading the 5-foot-6, 112-pounder to drop that race for the 100.

In the latter she ran the fourth best time out of divisionals, behind Qunell, Grass Range's Renae Knerr and West Yellowstone's Terri Wittmer. But challenges are nothing new for the senior. "I'm looking forward to running against them," Kirkpatrick said. "It's going to be really good competition. I think it's going to be fun."

Making it more fun would be a state title. Ryegate placed third at state the last two seasons, and now Harlowton is lacking the big point-scorers that made the Engineers five-time champs. But Geraldine and Manhattan Christian — DeHaan is back, but not running quite as strong — still stand in the way.

It appears a score in the mid-50s could win the title. "I think we have a chance," Kirkpatrick said. "Last year we scored 54 points and got third. If everything goes right we could have around 70 points, which would put us right up there."

Support group A lot of that depends on one person. "I'm confident I can hit 38 feet in the triple jump," said Kirkpatrick, whose mark of 37-10 leads the state. "And I want to hit 17 (in the long jump). I haven't been doing that lately. I'm not sure about the 100, but in the 100 hurdles I think can get down to the 14s."

Three other Blue Demons are headed to state: Stephanie Paugh, Shona DeSaye and Fawn Kirkpatrick, Kelsey's sophomore sister. Fawn was a big scoring threat until a hip injury hampered her: She's competing only in the high jump at state.

DeSaye qualified for state in the high jump as well as the discus and javelin, and could provide much-needed points. Paugh is still rounding into shape after a December accident broke some ribs and punctured a lung. She was second in the 3,200 and third in the 1,600 last year. "At every meet she's just improved so much," Kelsey Kirkpatrick said. "And she just keeps pushing herself harder each week, to do well."

Bozeman-bound Kirkpatrick's own drive drew notice from college recruiters. She got letters from Columbia, Concordia, the University of Montana and Montana State University, among others. "I can't remember what coaches called me anymore," she said.

She remembers two for sure. "The beginning of my junior year, as soon as the recruiting period started, both Montana coaches called," she said. "I was pretty excited."

Kirkpatrick chose MSU, where Jones is a heptathlete. "It was closer to home, first of all," she said. "I didn't want to go too far away. And just the environment — I loved Bozeman."

She credits some of her improvement in the hurdles — she ran them for the first time at a district junior high meet — to Jones and Harlo girls coach Michele Wrzesinski. "Erin and Michele helped me a lot," she said. "I didn't know any drills, and I never really had much help — I mean, to just have someone watch me, and tell me what I was doing wrong really helped."

With that help came more confidence. Quickly Kirkpatrick caught up with Jones in one event — the triple jump. "My sophomore year, I got her at state," she remembered. "I just went in and had nothing to lose, and just gave it my all. It was a big confidence booster."

Which brings us to this weekend. "I'm excited," she said. "I know this is my last state meet. I'm going to have to just go out there and reach my goals, because it's my last chance."

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