By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
For Havre High cross country coach Kim Ray, Friday will be the first strides for a state title run for her girls team, while it will be the first varsity strides period for her boys team.
Now, she'll get a chance to do the same thing with the new Pony boys squad.
Ray and the Ponies will open the 2004 season on Friday afternoon at the Cut Bank Time Trials.
Because the event is not a team race, Ray will take over 20 girls and eight boys to the race, hoping to get a feel for where her runners are at physically compared to last year, and to where other runners from around the state are at.
Havre ran its own intrasquad time trial last weekend with mixed results.
"I was surprised at some of the boys times," Ray said. "I didn't think our first boy in would be in at 19:30. I thought it would be a little faster."
Fortunately, Ray doesn't have to worry about that with her girls squad. Their times last weekend were a little better.
"Most of the girls came in around 21 minutes," Ray said. "The times were pretty good for our course. The runners who are back from last year looked pretty good. Some of the others just haven't had enough practices yet."
The mixed results have kept Ray diplomatic. She knows that for many of her runners, last week's time trial was a new experience.
"For some of them, it was their very first race," Ray said. "The big thing is that they know what to expect. Some of them were so worried about the finish."
Ray is looking for a little different attitude from her runners on Friday.
"I want them to got out and be more aggressive," Ray said. "They need to go after people. I think we get too conservative at times. We worried about having something left at the finish. It's better to go out hard than to finish the race and realize you still have something left."
For the Havre girls, this attitude means to run and compete with the runners from the Class AA schools that are there.
"Browning lost Wasewi (Shawl) so they will be down a little," Ray said. "We want to compete with the AA schools. We need to go out with them and make up our minds that we are going to run with them."
It's not a big request considering the talent that the Havre girls have returning year.
The Ponies are coming off a solid second-place finish at last year's Class A state cross country meet and return six of seven runners who competed in the state meet.
Seniors Amy McLain, Kim Jestrab and Emily Kostelecky are all solid runners, and Ray points to them as leaders for this year's team.
"They are just good all-around kids," she said.
McLain was Havre's highest finisher at state with a 16th, while Kostelecky competed at state and Jestrab lettered and ran in several big races.
Other returnees from the state meet include junior Mandi Nystrom, who was 17th, junior McKayla Patterson, who finished 19th, fellow junior Kelsey Malsam and sophomore Kristine Keltgen.
"We have a solid nucleus of kids returning," Ray said. "They really have come in and looked good early on. Most of them did some running during the summer, which put them ahead of last year already. As a whole, the girls team is looking pretty good."
As of this week, Ray still didn't have a varsity lineup for certain. Several other girls are pushing her returnees early on.
Sophomore Darci Briere ran a few varsity races last season and is coming off a solid track season. Senior Rebecca Hilliard and sophomore Christina Armstrong had good showings at the time trial last weekend, as did freshman Danika Patterson.
There are certainly plenty of girls for Ray to keep track of. Thirty girls have come out for the team, one of the largest groups since cross country began at HHS.
With plenty of new faces and the solid returning runners, Ray and the Ponies have their eyes set on a state title.
Two-time defending state champion Bigfork lost its top four runners to graduation and should not be a title factor. Havre, in contrast, returns nearly every runner and is poised to take its run at the title.
"The girls and I both believe that we should be right there," Ray said. "If you look at what we did last year and who we have coming back and what other teams have coming back, you'd have to think we should be one of the teams to beat."
The Ponies' main competition should come from Eastern schools Miles City and Colstrip, who have two or three good runners coming back.
While Ray can look at last year and determine how good her girls team could be, it's a a little more difficult for the boys.
Because Havre wasn't an MHSA sanctioned team last season, the Havre boys weren't allowed to compete at divisionals or state.
"I've been looking back at some of the times and see how they compare, but it's tough to say," Ray said. "Those first few meets will tell me a lot."
Particularly, this meet.
Havre does return a few runners from last year's cross country club squad. Senior Kyle Baltrusch, junior Marcus Campbell and sophomore Jeff Hedstrom and Clay Nottingham all competed last season in some races.
The team is far from deep, with sophomores Justin McLeod and Jade Nystrom. Ray added five more runners once school started, but some of them won't have enough practices to compete on Friday.
"I'm not sure how the boys are going to do," Ray said. "This meet will really help me see where the boys are at."
The biggest measuring stick for Havre will be to see how it compares with perennial Class A power Browning.
"Browning is always one of the top boys teams in the state," Ray said. "It will be interesting to see how we compare and where we're at with the boys. Right now, I think the boys need to be in better shape if they want to be competitive. Jeff Sprinkle and Kasey Barsotti are gone and they can't rely on them to help them this year."
As a whole, Ray is a little concerned where her team is at physically.
"Right now, I don't think we're where we should be," she said. "I could be wrong. This race is going to show me a lot. I like the fact that it's not scored as a team race. It's going to be a big eye-