As the grass begins to poke through another winter’s worth of snow, so too are the Flathead Valley’s athletes making their way outdoors for a spring season of softball, tennis, track and more. The high school spring sports season is already underway — the year’s first Montana High School Association-sanctioned contests were held on March 24 — and soon games will be taking place everywhere from the rugby pitch to the baseball diamond.
Here’s a look at some of the stories we’re following as the spring season gets underway:
Record-Breaking Track Stars Embark on Senior Seasons
There’s nothing new about outstanding distance runners in the Flathead Valley, but another couple chapters in the region’s superlative history come to a close this spring as Annie Hill (Glacier) and Bryn Morley (Bigfork) will compete for the last time as high school athletes.
Hill, the 2017 Gatorade Montana Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year, swept the distance races at last year’s Class AA state track meet, winning the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races, and nearly won a fourth race, coming in second in the 400. The senior is a two-time state cross country champion and the sport’s all-class record holder, as well as the 2015 Gatorade Montana Girls Cross Country Athlete of the Year, and she ran the fastest 3,200 ever by a Montana prep female in a national competition in 2016. Hill will run at the University of Colorado this fall.
Morley, the latest in a line of standout runners in her family, enters this spring on the heels of three consecutive Class B state cross country titles (as a freshman she finished second only to her older sister, Makena). Like Hill, Morley swept the distance races at last year’s Class B state track meet, and added a win in the 4×400 relay.
Bigfork’s girls team won the Class B state championship in 2017 and is among the favorites to do it again this spring. Beyond Morley, the Valkyries boast senior sprinter Haile Norred, the defending 200- and 400-meter champion, junior Anya Young, who was third in the 1,600, and a handful of other state placers. In Class A, Whitefish standout Lauren Schulz will look to improve on a couple strong finishes at last year’s state meet where the junior was second in the 200 and fourth in the 100 and 400.
For boys, both Kalispell schools feature runners who could challenge for state titles. Flathead’s Ben Perrin, a junior, was sixth at the state cross country meet last fall and came in third in the 3,200 as a sophomore. The Braves also return state-placing hurdlers Dawson Reinhart and Chad Hemsley.
Glacier, meanwhile, has added a three-time state champion sprinter to its lineup. Montana State University football commit Mark Estes transferred to the Wolfpack last summer from Drummond after winning the 2017 Class C titles in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints. He figures to challenge for a spot on a 4×100 relay team that finished second last year behind now-seniors Ethan Larson, Jackson Pepe and Drew Turner, all of whom could challenge for individual titles, too.
It’s not just on the track where Flathead Valley squads should shine this spring, either. The Columbia Falls boys finished fourth in Class A last year and return five throwers that all placed at the state meet: Ben Windauer, Austin Green, Seth Gossett, Logan Kolodejchuk and Tanner Gove. Other returners to watch in the field include defending Class AA triple jump champion Hunter Nicholson (Glacier), high jumpers Madde Boles (Flathead), Alex Barker (Whitefish) and Logan Taylor (Bigfork), and throwers Bennett McChesney (Glacier), Evan Todd (Glacier) and Angellica Street (Columbia Falls).
State Legion Baseball Tournament Returns to Kalispell
This spring marks the 40th anniversary of Kalispell’s last Montana-Alberta American Legion state championship, and if the Lakers AA team is to break that streak and bring home another title, they won’t have to travel far with the trophy.
Kalispell’s Griffin Field will host this year’s state tournament for the first time in manager Ryan Malmin’s 13-year tenure, and the Lakers have a team with the pieces in place to make history. Malmin’s Lakers reached the state title game two years ago, and this year’s squad is loaded with pitching talent. Starter Sam Elliott, an all-conference selection a year ago, figures to be the ace of a deep staff that includes returners Drew Sherrer, Dawson Smith and Johan Freudenberg. Offensively, a healthy Randy Stultz should anchor the lineup after missing 31 games last season with an injury.
In Whitefish, the Class A Glacier Twins also boast a formidable rotation, anchored by all-state hurler Ryan Veneman. All-conference pitchers Coby Clark-Dickinson and Greyson Bistodeau are also back for a team that went 20-2 in Western A conference play a year ago.
Black and Blue Ready to Defend Titles
Kalispell’s rugby teams came home with a carload of hardware from last year’s state championships, where the Black and Blue’s high school boys, high school girls and middle school boys all won state titles.
The boys high school team has won back-to-back championships and started this season on March 24 by taking first place at the Missoula 7’s tournament. Standouts Tucker Nadeau, Sam Mann, Daniel Long and Sebastian Koch are all back this year for the Black and Blue, and the team’s recent success has led to increased participation. Coach Lance Heavirland says 30 boys are signed up to play this year, one of the largest turnouts ever for the program.
The girls team won a championship in its first season last year, and while a strong core returns for a squad that could challenge for another title, the program is seeking additional players for this spring. Girls and boys interested in playing rugby should visit the Flathead Valley Youth Rugby page on Facebook or register at www.montanayouthrugby.org.
Wolfpack Alum Ready to Lead Glacier Softball
For the first time in its 11-year history, Glacier High School will have one of its own leading a sports program.
Abby Connolly, a 2010 Glacier graduate, is the new head coach of the Wolfpack, and she inherits a program just three years removed from a Class AA state championship. The third head coach in the team’s history, Connolly steps in after serving as an assistant under former coach Andy Fors.
The Wolfpack were 7-15 a year ago but return a fair bit of offensive talent, led by seniors Alivia Atlee and Meg Hornby. That pair is joined by sophomores Abby Labrum and Sophie Smith, each of whom earned all-conference honors as freshmen.
On the south side of town, second-year coach Jack Foster and the Flathead Bravettes boast Kalispell’s most decorated player, senior catcher Jayden Russell. She hit a sizzling .452 and cranked 11 extra-base hits en route to garnering all-state recognition last season, all while playing nearly every inning behind the plate. She will pair with classmate Kaileigh Denna to anchor a formidable lineup in support of pitcher Maitlyn Betts.
In Class A, Columbia Falls is looking to make a return trip to the state tournament, where the program won a pair of games last season. Junior infielder Trista Cowan is back after an all-conference season, although five other all-conference players off last year’s team have graduated.
Class AA Tennis Championship Returns to FVCC
For the second year in a row, Glacier will host the Class AA state tennis tournament at Flathead Valley Community College, and behind a pair of exciting newcomers, the Wolfpack figure to be a force on their home courts.
The boys team will be led by a freshman, Rory Smith, who has already been going point-for-point with the state’s best high school players in amateur tournaments. Glacier’s longtime coach, Josh Munro, says Smith could contend for the state title this year, and three strong doubles teams — led by the duo of Tyler Keller and Kyle Buckingham — should keep Glacier in the hunt.
Coming off a third-place finish at state last year, Glacier’s girls team also welcomes a new face at the top of the lineup in Maria Frampton, another star on the junior tennis circuit. Frampton is a junior who is playing her first year of high school tennis after transferring from Whitefish Christian Academy.
Flathead, meanwhile, welcomes a new coach this season. The Braves and Bravettes’ new mentor is Jimmy Cripe, one of the most successful tennis players ever to come out of the Flathead Valley, having won back-to-back state titles at Whitefish High School in 1988 and 1989 before playing at Montana State.
Bigfork’s tennis teams could also make noise at the Class B tournament behind the state-placing boys doubles team of Clayton and Colton Reichenbach and girls state placers Ellie Berreth and Ahna Fox.
Local Teams Join New High School Lacrosse Association
The Flathead Valley will once again have two lacrosse programs this spring, with renamed Whitefish and Glacier squads taking the field.
Both Whitefish and Glacier are part of the new Montana High School Lacrosse Association, which mandated that clubs for high school students separate themselves from local youth teams. The Northwest Lacrosse program, which had previously included the Northwest Sharpshooters prep team, will now only sponsor youth teams and programs throughout the Flathead Valley.
Whitefish (formerly Flathead Lacrosse) and Glacier (formerly the Sharpshooters) each open their seasons on April 7. The two teams will square off against one another on April 12 at Glacier High School and May 3 at Grouse Mountain Park in Whitefish.
Spring 2018 State Tournaments
Track and Field
Class AA and Class C, May 25-26, Great Falls
Class A and Class B, May 25-26, Laurel
Class AA, May 24-26, Helena
Class A, May 24-26, Frenchtown
Class B/C, May 24-26, Belgrade
Class AA, May 17-18, Kalispell
Class A, May 24-25, Polson and Ronan
Class B/C, May 17-18, Great Falls
Class B, May 15-16, Shepherd
Class C, May 15-16, Anaconda
Class AA, July 28-31, Kalispell
Class A, Aug. 1-5, Miles City
Class B, July 19-22, Hamilton
High School Tournament, May 11-12, Missoula
High School Championships, May 17-19, Bozeman