O’Brien Byrd has coached Whitefish High School to two straight boys soccer state championships. Though the core players from those teams have already wrapped up their high school careers, Byrd isn’t done with them yet.
Now he’s their teammate.
Five players from the championship teams of 2006 and 2007 play alongside Byrd on the Flathead Rapids of the Montana Premier League (MPL). Byrd, 31, is the team’s captain and oldest player.
He said there is one distinct difference between the roles of coach and teammate.
“I used to just yell at them,” Byrd said. “Now I get to yell at them and kick them.”
“Of course, they can kick me too,” he added.
The MPL is a competitive men’s soccer league for players 18 and older. In its third year of existence, it has already developed into the foremost soccer league in the state, loaded with former high school stars, college and ex-college standouts and ex-professional players. The Rapids are the MPL’s defending champion, a direct reflection of the region’s storied soccer history.
Out of the last seven years in Class A soccer, either Columbia Falls or Whitefish has won the state championship six times. On the AA side, Flathead High has won two out of the last three state championships. So the Rapids have a lot of talent to choose from.
“They’ve had the most success in the state,” Byrd said of local high schools. “It’s not a real big surprise that we’ve had success.”
Byrd is a Columbia Falls alum who played at McPherson College in Kansas and professionally for the Reading Rage. Along with the seven high school seniors on the team, there are college players from Washington, New Hampshire and elsewhere that are in the Flathead for the summer. One player is from Ghana and another is from Mexico, where he played professionally.
Byrd hopes the league can blossom into a professional development league, like the one he played in when he was with the Rage. For high school seniors like Whitefish’s Shane Widdifield and Matt Grinrod, who are both going to play at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and Bigfork’s Roland Benedict, who is going to play at the University of Redlands in California, the league is a great way to hone their skills and give them a taste of what’s to come.
Of the seven seniors on the team, six of them have committed to play in college, Byrd said.
“It’s definitely replicating the collegiate level of play,” Byrd said.
The Rapids practice twice a week at the Mike Stebbins Soccer Complex, a gorgeous hayfield-turned-soccer facility outside of Kalispell. At a recent practice, where grazing cattle and snowcapped mountains formed an appropriately Montanan backdrop, players trudged through two hours of a fast-paced, humid training session. Nearly all of the 24 players on the roster were there.
Practices, though light-hearted at times, are intense and move along at a pace one would expect from a team full of all-stars. Widdifield said even the best in high school competition doesn’t hold a candle to what he faces in the MPL.
“You have to know what you’re going to do with the ball a lot faster,” Widdifield said. “And there are a lot harder tackles.”
The older more experienced players have much to offer to the younger guys, but the road goes both ways. Young guys, aside from often being in better shape, bring an enthusiasm to the games that players who have been removed from competitive soccer aren’t tuned into.
“Younger guys keep us on our toes,” said 29-year-old Jake Madsen, a former goalkeeper for Flathead Valley Community College. “They bring that energy that you kind of lose as you get older.”
The Rapids are 1-1 this season, with six regular season games left. This year’s MPL playoff tournament will be held at the Grouse Mountain soccer fields in Whitefish on August 2 and 3. Byrd said this year’s field is the most competitive yet, which is a good sign for the MPL.
“All of a sudden it’s really blossomed into a legit league,” Byrd said.
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