COLUMBIA FALLS – Since soccer became a Class A sport in 2001, Columbia Falls and Whitefish have won six out of seven state championships for boys and three out of seven for girls. It’s a regional dominance nearly unheard of in Montana high school athletics.
The years when a team other than Columbia Falls or Whitefish won the state championship, boys or girls, the two Flathead schools were still usually at the top of the standings. So as the 2008 fall soccer season kicks off, all eyes are on the Wildcats and Bulldogs again.
When soccer became a high school sport in 1991, there was only one conference because the sport was not yet prevalent in Montana schools. Whitefish and Columbia Falls were the first Class A programs to join, meaning they played all of their games against big Class AA schools. That experience put them ahead of other schools their size. By the time enough Class A schools had joined to form their own conference in 2001, the two northwestern towns had already established soccer traditions.
On the boys’ side, Columbia Falls won three out of the first five state titles beginning in 2001, with Whitefish claiming one in that period. Whitefish has won the last two. O’Brien Byrd, who played at Columbia Falls and is the head coach at Whitefish, said winning has created a proud soccer culture, whereas other towns place disproportionate emphasis on America’s more traditional favorite sports, like football.
Byrd’s teams haven’t lost in more than two years, going 32-0 in that span and winning two state titles.
“We’ve been able to create enough excitement around soccer where I believe other towns have focused on more popular sports in the fall,” Byrd, in his sixth year at Whitefish, said. “Certainly it compounds itself: The more success you have it usually stirs up interest.”
Peter Browne, head coach of Columbia Falls’ boys team for nine years, said Whitefish is more of a soccer community, but his town consistently produces enough top-notch athletes to battle for the state title. Browne’s squads are usually smaller than Byrd’s. He has 18 players on his roster this season, while Whitefish has more than 30, which is actually a substantial drop from last year’s loaded roster of 42.
“I’ve just been grateful to have some really great players,” Browne said. “It’s been a great place to coach.”
Byrd lost a core of gifted seniors from last year’s undefeated team, most of whom are playing college ball. But, as always, he has a new talented class that has been waiting for its chance. And while those players were waiting, a few of them grew – a lot. Jake Danczyk, the Bulldogs’ all-conference defensive center, is 6 feet 3, 190 pounds. And Joe Galbraith, the Bulldogs’ talented senior goalie, has put on a couple of inches and 15 pounds since last year, Byrd said. He’ll be a force at the net with his 6-foot-3 frame.
“He’s a monster,” Byrd said. “He’s twice as good as he was last year. He’s incredible.”
Last year, Browne’s Wildcats lost in a shootout to Libby in the state semifinals. While the team lost a few key seniors from that team, a couple of all-conference standouts are returning, along with a strong supporting cast. Travis Pete, the younger brother of former Wildcat star Cory Pete, represents the “end of the Pete legacy,” Browne said, and is expected to leave his own mark. Chase Jackson is expected to be the Wildcats’ primary goal scorer.
Like Whitefish, Columbia Falls will be guided by an excellent goalkeeper in George Kimerly. Kimerly, a senior, is regarded as one of the best goalies in the state, along with Galbraith.
On the girls’ side, Whitefish lost only two seniors from last year’s 9-5 team, which was defeated by Belgrade in the state title game. This year’s team has eight seniors and the usual crop of talented underclassmen. Because Whitefish has made it to the state title game three years in a row, winning one, several of the seniors have three championship matches under their belts. Experience like that is valuable and, furthermore, very uncommon.
Carly Lengstorf, one of the conference’s leading scorers last season, returns for her senior year, as do captains Meagan Powell, Kylee Smith and Hannah Long. Lengstorf and Long were all-conference.
“It’s exciting,” said head coach Lini Reading, in her 15th year of coaching at Whitefish. “It’s a wonderful group of kids.”
Reading expects Columbia Falls to be a formidable opponent again this season, despite losing a handful of senior leaders and the conference’s leading goal scorer, Kassi Hebert. Hebert transferred to Flathead High. Reading said she is familiar with several of the Wildkats’ top players, including a few capable freshmen. Reading said head coach Greg Trenerry, like Browne on the boys side, consistently fields a good team.
“Columbia Falls is always strong,” Reading said.
Coaches on both the girls and boys side expect stiff competition this year across the board in Class A. Byrd knows it will be a challenge to extend his club’s undefeated streak. And, as always, he has already circled the two games against Columbia Falls on his calendar.
“The Columbia Falls games are huge for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride.”
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