The Kings of Montana’s Soccer Capital

By Beacon Staff

When O’Brien Byrd pulled up to soccer practice on a recent weekday afternoon, the Whitefish Bulldogs were already enmeshed in their regimen. Cleats were on. Soccer balls were soaring. Without anyone’s urging, players were directing passes to one another like drills. The arrival of the head coach seemed happenstance.

This is the culture of dedication, hard work and passion that Byrd has worked to establish in 10 years. No doubt, the Columbia Falls native has succeeded.

The city of Whitefish has become the capital of boys soccer in Montana, and the Bulldogs are its kings. This year’s undefeated team is tearing through the season with a ravenous intensity that will only be calmed by defending its Class A state championship.

Led by the best goal scorer in Montana and one of the best goalkeepers, Whitefish has outscored its seven opponents 40-2. Sam Donaldson, a senior who set the state record last season with 26 goals, is on record-setting pace again, already with 12 goals. Senior goalie Thomas Clark has been equally masterful, allowing only two goals in the net, including an own-goal accidently kicked in by his brother. Several other talented veterans are also back, like seniors Sean Janni and Curran Edland and juniors Jon Dittman and Nathan Boone.

This versatile mix of players has allowed Byrd to evolve the team’s strategy like never before. Digging into international playbooks and styles of play, Byrd found a formation that’s not being used by any other team in Montana, he said. It’s far more aggressive than the traditional American schemes that feature four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards. Risk exists, but so does reward, as seen this season.

“I knew they had the potential to succeed but I didn’t know to what level. The level they’ve showed is really impressive,” he said. “I didn’t think they would learn it at the rate they’re learning it now.”

Byrd took the risk because he wanted to keep the team motivated and levelheaded, “and give them new challenges rather than resting on their laurels.”

“That goes for coaches, too,” he said. “I found I needed to push myself from a coaching aspect and bring in some new ideas and not just get stuck with, ‘Well this works and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”

There was certainly nothing broke last season. This year’s success has continued from last fall when Whitefish beat Polson 3-0 to win the program’s fourth state title, the most of any Class A school. The victory snapped a streak of three straight seasons falling in the playoffs. It also added to the Bulldogs’ storied legacy as one of the most successful programs in any classification since Montana added soccer 22 years ago.

Since the fall of 2006, the Bulldogs have won three state titles and compiled a 77-12-6 record, including a 43-game undefeated streak between 2006-08. In 2007 the team became the first to win back-to-back state titles and go undefeated in back-to-back seasons. This year’s squad is dominating in similar fashion and has won 19 straight dating back to last season.

“Their technical skills are far superior to other teams they play,” said Libby head coach Charlie Webster. “They obviously spend a lot of time with the soccer ball.”

Webster knows what it’s like to compete against Whitefish as well as anyone. He’s coached in the fierce Northern A conference for five years. There never seems to be an easy conference game, and in many ways that’s sharpened all the programs.

Since the fall of 2001, when Montana designated its own division for Class A, a team from this corner of the state has won nine of the 11 boys state championships. The Loggers have won two state championships — 2008 and 2010. Columbia Falls has won three — 2001, ’03 and ’05.

Curran Edland, center left, celebrates with teammate Tommy Murphy after Edland scored the Bulldogs’ first goal with the assist from Murphy during Whitefish’s 5-0 win over Bigfork. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish stood out in the talented pack all those years. Even in those “down years,” the Bulldogs have finished one or two games, or just one or two goals, away from another trophy. The girls program has been remarkably successful as well, winning two state championships — 2001 and 2006 — and playing in several other title games over the years.

“This is what I see: there’s a culture there that understands the hard work and dedication it takes to build that type of program,” Webster said. “They know if they want to play soccer in Whitefish that’s what they’ll have to do.

“And I think they have extremely dedicated coaches, too. O’Brien is always living, breathing and thinking soccer … It’s a great thing for the program.”

Byrd certainly spends a fair amount of time around the soccer pitch. When he’s not coaching the Bulldogs he’s playing with the Flathead Rapids men’s premier team. The Rapids, a group of 35 players ages 18 and older, travel the country year-round for tournaments and games as well as a women’s team that was founded last year. The Rapids organization recently took over Glacier United, a valley-wide youth organization. All told, Byrd said there are now over 500 players involved in Rapids programs, academies and leagues throughout the year.

This system of high-quality youth and adult programs is a foundation of Whitefish’s success, according to Byrd. Another advantage is having a top-notch complex like Smith Fields, which could be host to all of Whitefish’s playoff games this year if the Bulldogs win the conference. Byrd said the program’s success also lies in the people he’s been fortunate enough to surround himself with, people who live and breathe soccer.

But winning helps, too.

“The younger kids want to be part of a successful program and they look up to their high school idols who win state championships or win the big games,” Byrd said.

And the winning starts with dedication, hard work and passion. That’s the culture Byrd has helped establish and it has put Whitefish on the map.

“It’s been an interesting road,” he said. “Without a doubt, Whitefish is definitely the epicenter for quality soccer in the state.”

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