Family atmosphere

From left: Highland junior Crewe Resendez, seniors Kayla Case and Emma Baugh, and junior Lucas Witcher are four of the top returning athletes for the Hawks this cross country season. The girls are looking to repeat as champions while the boys have a chip on their shoulder after placing second a year ago. (Dave Minton/GSN Staff) 

Monty Montgomery’s main goal for his Highland cross country program every year is to provide an outlet for runners to compete and have fun in a family atmosphere.

The success just happened to come naturally.

He’s led the Hawks to two state titles on the boys’ side and just recently captured the girls’ first-ever championship last season. The Hawks also have multiple runner-ups and top-three placements for both teams.

Montgomery doesn’t focus on the winning ways of his program. He approaches the spring track season with the same mindset as the fall, even though his classroom at Highland is filled with trophies from various events.

“Culture first then process, that’s my two things,” Montgomery said. “We don’t talk about meets. We don’t talk about times or winning stuff. I don’t care. What you do in the process translates to the meets. It works.

“I have it made (at Highland). We don’t have grade issues. We don’t have discipline issues. We’ve got great kids.”

While he may hesitate to admit it, Montgomery knows how special both the girls’ and boys’ cross country teams can be this fall.

The girls return all seven runners that competed in last year’s state championship race. Emma Baugh and Kayla Case, who finished second and third, respectively, are expected to lead the Highland team this season once again.

“It’s super exciting,” Baugh said. “We didn’t lose a ton of people this last year. We know the girls really well. We get to improve together.”

When together, the girls often laugh and joke around. Even during 5 a.m. practices they are lively and full of energy.

In a way that keeps them going through the grueling summer workouts that then transition into the fall. It also helps having a coach that will get in on some of the jokes with them.

That’s what has made Montgomery one of the most beloved coaches in the state. He finds ways to relate to his athletes and cares for their well-being. His passion and attitude carries over to his athletes.

“We’re known for being fast, but I feel like we’re known for being very friendly and fun,” Case said. “That’s honestly what I strive for more. Just talking to other teams. We have so much fun.”

Along with Baugh and Case, Cloe Baugh, Zoe Tizard and Sophie Mann return for another season with the cross country team. Kathryn Sewell and Lindsay Schlink, too.

The girls also have several talented freshmen entering the program. Baugh and Case believe they can repeat as champions this season, and they will likely enter the season in September as the favorite with Desert Vista star Lauren Ping transferring to Valley Christian in a different division as Highland.

Baugh and Case still recall the moment last season when they came across the finish line and received the first-place team trophy. They’re eager to replicate that feeling.

“In the moment when we found out, being with the team, that was special,” Baugh said.

“Hugging, crying on shoulders,” Case added.

Much like the girls, the Highland boys have had their fair share of top finishes. Last year, the Hawks were edged by Desert Vista, a perennial power under head coach Chris Hanson.

Placing second has put a chip on the shoulder of the Hawks, who lost just one runner from last year’s team. Juniors Lucas Witcher and Crewe Resendez will be the leaders of this year’s team. It’s a role they have both taken in stride, especially Resendez.

He has had three older brothers come through the cross country program. Only one of them won a state title. He believes he is already faster than all of them, and now aims to win two state championships before he graduates for some bragging rights.

“I’ll rub it in their face,” Resendez said, which was met with laughter from Montgomery, Witcher, Baugh and Case. “I told them I wanted to get four rings. Now, that’s not possible. But I can get two. We keep getting better.”

Every athlete involved in the Highland cross country program is honored to represent the school. They take pride in having the school’s name draped across their chest at meets.

Especially in cross country, it represents a program that for so long has been one of the best in the state and recognized outside of it as well. But it also represents a family, one that was established by Montgomery many years ago.

While expectations are high, Montgomery constantly reminds the team that isn’t what it’s all about. He would rather them establish life-long connections with teammates and earn an opportunity to continue their athletic careers in college.

The boys and girls find joy in cheering for one another and running alongside each other in practices. Those early mornings have brought them together and made them a family. One that has become successful.

“It’s really cool to continue to grow and to continue to show the new people that join the team how to be a family,” Witcher said. “Even with the classes before us, we’re continuing the legacy and passing it on to the underclassmen below us.”