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PHOTO GALLERY: Mustangs on the cusp of claiming MSAC crown

  • Ken Kadwell/@KenKadwell - Special to the Sun Montabella's Marisol Bucao, left, clears a hurdle as she fights for first place during the Sacred Heart invitational at Mt. Pleasant Wednesday, May 7, 2014.
  • Ken Kadwell/@KenKadwell - Special to the Sun Coleman's Jarid Walton prepares to clear the high jump bar during the Sacred Heart invitational at Mt. Pleasant Wednesday, May 7, 2014.
  • Ken Kadwell/@KenKadwell - Special to the Sun Coleman's Bailey Mitchell approaches the high jump bar during the Sacred Heart invitational at Mt. Pleasant Wednesday, May 7, 2014. "Wish I had done a little better," said Bailey.

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The Montabella High School girls track team is not only finding success this spring but thriving behind a youth movement.

Easily the youngest program in the area, the Mustangs find themselves on the verge of claiming their first Mid-State Activities Conference championship since 2011 and erasing a bitter taste that was left in their mouth at the end of the 2013 season.

After winning the first two MSAC meets of 2013, Montabella settled for a third-place finish overall after finishing third in the final conference meet of the season. The Mustangs have again won the first two conference meets but enter next week’s final MSAC meet at Vestaburg with a 46-point cushion over defending conference champion Carson City-Crystal in the overall team standings.

“We had a young group of girls last year that experienced some success but were disappointed in where they finished. In this crazy, awful winter we had about eight girls who worked out every day and ran outside almost every day all winter long to come into this season in great shape,” said head coach Dan Gibson. “We’ve got a really good group of freshmen girls this year and we’ve got a great group of eighth graders who will be running for us next year, so we’ll have two good classes in back-to-back years. Being a small school, it’s really important to establish a good middle school program.

“I think what’s really telling about our success is that it starts with our middle school program. We started to put a real emphasis on the middle school program when I first started coaching. Being a small school, it’s hard to get kids to come out for track. Chuck Miles, who is our middle school coach, has done a great job with the kids. I think a lot of those middle school kids are prepared once they reach high school to race at the high school level.”

The success that the Mustangs have enjoyed this spring carried over from the fall when they secured their first-ever MSAC championship in cross country and finished ninth at the Division 4 state championships.

Ranked fifth in the most recent Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Division 4 power rankings, the Mustangs have already solidified a spot in the upcoming MITCA team state meet, which will be held in Saugatuck on May 24.

Sophomore Kensington Garvey leads a sizeable underclassmen group that is determined to not let another conference title slip away.

As a freshman in 2013, Garvey finished ninth in the 800 and was part of the 3,200 relay team that finished 18th at the MHSAA Division 4 state meet. A 2013 all-state cross country runner, Garvey currently ranks 11th in the 800 (2:30.80) and has shaved 20 seconds off her mile time this spring to check in ninth in the 1,600 (5:35:10).

“Kensington is one of the girls that ran all winter long in the hopes of qualifying for states again this year and finishing in the top eight in the 800,” Gibson said.

Freshman and cross country runner Brynn Lobert paces Montabella’s sprint team.

“Brynn is one of our top freshmen and another one of our cross country runners,” Gibson said. “She won the 100 and 200 dashes at the most recent MSAC meet and she finished second to her teammate (Alyvia Karcher) in the 400. Brynn has shown a lot of speed this spring.”

Montabella’s most consistent field event performer has been Katrina Buskirk. Only a sophomore, Buskirk competes in the pole vault, shot put and discus, which she currently ranks 14th (90-10) in.

“Katrina has been by far our top field event performer this year,” Gibson said. “Katrina is right on the edge right now of qualifying for the state meet in the discus.”

Gibson also points to sophomore Madison Cutler and freshman Lexi McQueen as two other underclassmen that have contributed significantly to the track program. Both McQueen and Cutler have split their time between softball and track. Cutler is ranked 10th in the 100 dash (13.62), while McQueen ranks 36th (14.34).

Although much of Montabella’s success has been centered around its underclassmen, the program’s face the last four years has been senior Taylor Smith.

A four-time all-state cross country runner and a three-sport athlete, Smith is the first runner in Gibson’s tenure to sign with a Division I program, electing to continue her career in the fall at the University of Detroit-Mercy.

“Taylor would never tell anyone this because she’s such a hard worker and a great athlete, but she was dealing with a bad back injury for most of the cross country season, which prevented her from having times like she did last year,” Gibson said. “She’s a great athlete and a great asset to her teammates.”

Smith, who finished seventh in the 3,200 at last year’s state finals, ranks third in the state in the 3,200 (12:08.55) this spring and 10th in the 1,600 (5:36.80).

On the boys side, the Mustangs find themselves 10 points behind Coleman for first place entering the final MSAC meet next week.

Although not as evenly balanced as the girls program, the boys have found success in the field events.

“The boys have a much smaller group than the girls, but they have some very solid athletes and have been solid in the field events,” Gibson said. “We’ve been able to score a ton of points from our field events. We’ve also had great contributions from Chase Murray in sprints and Joey Durham in the hurdles.

“I don’t think the MSAC is as strong as it has been in the past. Coleman had really dominated in recent years, but we’ve improved this year and we’re hoping to win the last meet.”

Junior Zach Taubitz has won both long jump competitions at the prior MSAC meets and ranks 13th in the state in the event, while Jonny Durham has finished first and second, respectively, in the pole vault. Durham, who also competes in the high jump, shot out and discus, is tied for seventh in the state in the pole vault (11-06).

The Mustangs enter regional competition this weekend with a focus on the individual effort. Gibson is emphasizing individual goals with the hope of qualifying as many individuals for the MHSAA Division 4 state finals as possible.

“For our girls, we’re putting more of an emphasis on getting our girls to states rather than earning a lot of points at regionals,” he said. “Some of the things that the kids have done to score points this year won’t happen at regionals. We’re planning to limit the amount of events and we really want to put an emphasis on the individual goals. We may be sacrificing team goals, but we think it’s important to pursue their individual goals and get them qualified for states.”

Montabella will compete alongside other area schools like Breckenridge, Vestaburg, Sacred Heart, Coleman, Beal City and Fulton at a Division 4 regional at Breckenridge Saturday.

Last Updated: 5/16/2014 6:45:45 PM EST