The Whitefish boys soccer team has amassed 11 straight wins and needs only one more to earn its fourth state championship in 10 seasons, the most of any program in Class A.
But first the Bulldogs (12-2-0) will need to stop the underdogs in Saturday’s state championship game in Whitefish. Polson (9-3-2) enters the noon finale with confidence after beating the only previously undefeated team in the state. The Pirates eliminated Hamilton in exciting fashion in last weekend’s semifinals with an overtime shootout victory. The win was Polson’s fourth straight and vaulted the team into the title game for the first time in the current playoff format.
Saturday will be the third meeting of the season between the two Northern A foes. Whitefish won both contests – 6-3 and 2-1 – but ninth-year head coach O’Brien Byrd knows better than to rest on his team’s laurels.
“Polson has a lot of things going for them,” Byrd said. “We know it’s going to be a battle.”
Junior Sam Donaldson is the Bulldogs’ sharpshooter on offense and has scored in every game of the winning streak, including three in last weekend’s 5-4 win over Frenchtown. He leads the state with 24 goals. Donaldson has had plenty of support behind him, too. During the regular season, Whitefish outscored opponents 58-14.
“We’re dangerous offensively,” Byrd said.
Polson, with seven seniors, hasn’t slouched on offense either. The Pirates boast the second- and third-leading scorers in the state – James Larson and Riley Lemm, both with 15 goals apiece. As a team, the Pirates outscored opponents 42-24 during the season
“We’ve improved a lot on our scoring from last year,” Polson seventh-year coach Jess Kittle said.
While Whitefish has been a regular contender, playing in five state championships in the last nine years and winning in ’02, ’06 and ’07, this is a new high-water mark for Polson. The team made it to the semifinals last year before falling to Belgrade. Before the playoffs were established, a weekend tournament was held and Polson lost out to Whitefish. But besides that, the Pirates have not reached the official finale until now.
“They learned they don’t want to lose a heartbreaking loss like they did against Belgrade last year,” Kittle said. “I know it’s cliché, but it really is true about this team. They don’t want to walk off that field and say they could have given more. They’ll leave everything on that field.”
The same can be said about Whitefish, where a few players can still taste the bitterness from two seasons ago. The Bulldogs were crushed by Billings Central at home in 2009 in the title game.
“They want another chance at that same situation,” Byrd said. “The kids know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Saturday’s soccer finale won’t really be the last game of the season for some seniors. The local Flathead Rapids men’s soccer team is hosting the first annual Senior Showcase in Whitefish on Nov. 4. The event will be a de facto all star game featuring all-state and all-conference seniors from all the schools in the valley.
“It’s always a terrible feeling for those seniors regardless of win or lose,” Byrd said. “This is one more opportunity for the valley’s best to play and be recognized and celebrated.”
The event will start with the girls’ game at 4 p.m., followed by the boys’ game at 5:30. Teams will be split up between seniors from Flathead, Glacier, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Polson, Bigfork, Libby and Stillwater Christian. One player from each team will be named MVP.
“We want to develop a tradition,” Byrd said.
Afterward, at 7 p.m., the Rapids will take on the Green Monarchs from Sandpoint, Idaho, in the Valley Cup.
For more information, visit www.flatheadrapids.com.
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