Not many high school teams, in any sport, can lose 12 seniors, including three all-staters, and enter the next season feeling good about its chances of winning a state championship for the second year in a row.
But for Whitefish High’s girls soccer team, the talent pool runs deep.
“There’s a lot, a lot of talent (on this team),” said Kaitlyn Sleichter, co-captain and one of two seniors on the team. “There shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t win state again.”
Whitefish begins its season on Aug. 31 against Billings Central, the team it beat in last season’s state championship game. Billings Central will already have a few games under its belt, which is fine with the Whitefish girls. They are a confident bunch, led by their two senior captains: Sleichter and Alissa LaChance, who were both all-conference last year.
Because the team lost so many seniors, LaChance and Sleichter said they think some people are overlooking Whitefish.
“We’ve heard over and over again,” Sleichter said, “‘oh, you’ve lost so many seniors.’”
LaChance said, after looking at her team throughout a week of practice, this group of Whitefish girls has a chance to sneak up on a lot of people. Head coach Lini Reading agrees, but also says a lot remains to be seen with a squad that hasn’t even played a game yet together.
“Part of it is a little bit of confidence because I know these kids,” Reading said. “Part of it is a question mark.”
Reading took the girls to watch the University of Montana’s female soccer team train in Kalispell last week. As the girls watched, Reading would intermittently ask questions like “did you see that” or “what did they do different that time?” All varsity girls were present and the training session counted as a practice.
Whitefish’s coaching pool is deep this year too, Reading said. Heather Hodges and Elizabeth Pitman, both former Whitefish standouts and college stars, are onboard this season as assistant coaches. They don’t only bring valuable experience to the coaching staff, Reading said, but they also can get out there and play with the girls.
“They’re two of the best players to ever come out of Montana,” Reading said.
Of the 13 players listed on the varsity roster, 11 are juniors. Reading said it would be inappropriate to confuse their grade level with lack of experience. Many of these girls, she said, were part of last year’s state championship team and even a few were on the state runner-up team as freshmen.
“I wouldn’t really call them younger,” Reading said.
The Whitefish soccer program started in 1992 and Reading took over in 1994. Since 1992, the girls team has failed to make it to state only once, in 2003. They won state last year and in 2001.
Reading credits her team’s annual widespread talent to the club – or “feeder” – program that Whitefish has for pre-high school kids.
“We’ve been lucky with a great feeder program,” Reading said. “It’s what they’re getting when they’re young.”
Billings Central is a tough way to open up the season, Reading said, not only because it has a good team, but also because her girls have a long expedition ahead of them just to get to kickoff.
“We’re getting on the bus at five in the morning, driving nine hours and then getting off the bus and playing right away,” Reading said. “But it doesn’t matter – that’s the challenge.”
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