Whitefish lost one game on the soccer field in three years, but it was a big one. The Bulldogs fell 3-2 to Billings Central in the Class A state semifinals last fall, snapping their remarkable 44-game unbeaten streak and ending their bid for a third straight state title.
Then 11 players from last year’s team graduated and injuries struck at the beginning of this year. There were five injured players on the sidelines of the team’s season opener against Stevensville on Aug. 28, further denting an already small roster.
Such a combination of factors – players and momentum lost – would worry some coaches. But, with a talented young squad, O’Brien Byrd believes the Bulldogs are right back where they have been the past three years: in position for a state championship run. Even the injuries are starting to fade as the season gets underway.
“It’s been a challenge so far,” Byrd said. “We’re looking like another team that’s in contention for the title.”
The word “challenge” can be hard to define for the Whitefish Bulldogs’ boys soccer program. Despite the injuries and players lost to graduation, Whitefish blew past Stevensville in the season’s first game 9-0. But then they lost to Billings Central 4-1 on Sept. 4.
In fact, the Bulldogs have rarely been challenged over the past three years. Before losing to Central at state last year, Whitefish had only even tied one game – also against Central earlier in the season. The previous years, 2006 and 2007, were undefeated romps to the title. Whitefish also won the championship in 2002, the second year of Class A soccer.
In the Bulldogs’ 9-0 win at Stevensville, senior Travis Adams scored four goals and fellow senior Matt Danczyk scored three. Adams also had an assist. Byrd will look to those two seniors to guide a team that has only three returning starters from last year and six players in total with varsity experience. The 17-man roster is smaller than in past years, Byrd said.
“We’re lacking in the experience, but we’re not lacking in the skills department,” Byrd said.
Byrd thinks Adams could be the top scorer in the state. Last year he finished tied for third with 11 goals in 13 regular season games. With four goals through two game, he’s well on his way.
“He’s got the kind of skill, ability, power and speed that separates himself from the other high school athletes,” Byrd said of Adams. “He’s always had another guy to share the load, share the burden, but I think we’ll have to lean on Travis a little bit more this year.”
The fact remains that the Bulldogs have only lost two games in slightly over three years, making them a favorite at the state level again. But Byrd said Class A has a tough field this year, led by Billings Central and defending state champion Libby. He also expects Hamilton to be competitive.
“There’s a lot of exciting matchups this year,” Byrd said.
Libby and Hamilton are the only teams besides Whitefish and Columbia Falls to win a Class A title since the league adopted the sport in 2001. Hamilton won in 2004, while Columbia Falls won in 2001, 2003 and 2005. Of Whitefish’s three titles – 2002, 2006 and 2007 – Byrd points to the back-to-back championship team as being one of the most special squads he’s seen in Montana.
“When we won two championships in a row we had, I think, the best group of players that’s been put together on a high school team,” Byrd said.
Byrd said now that the winning streak is over, it could help the kids. The pressure of constantly thinking about staying undefeated is gone.
“For them, it was kind of a weight,” Byrd said. “Now it’s like, ‘OK that’s over, there’s no more streak so let’s focus on the next game.’”
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