Fit for Contention

Instead of rebuilding, the Whitefish soccer team has reloaded with a talented crew of players chasing another state championship

By Dillon Tabish

Shanoah Montano was less than thrilled to move from sunny Florida, where he attended an elite soccer academy, to the far corner of Montana, where soccer seemed like a forgotten sport with only a three-month season.

That may be true in some parts of the state, but not Whitefish. This town reveres soccer. It churns out talented goal scorers seemingly year after year. Rain or shine, winter or summer, soccer is played, and it’s played well.

“I came here and I was really surprised,” Montano said.

Now a senior, the midfielder is a high-scoring captain on the Bulldogs celebrated soccer team, helping carry on the tradition of excellence and leading the chase for another championship.

At 6-3-2 overall, 4-1-2 in Northern A, Whitefish has one of the best records in Class A as the regular season winds down and the postseason approaches.

The Bulldogs appear to be peaking at the right time, having outscored opponents 13-6 the past five matches and going 3-1-1 in that stretch against conference foes Columbia Falls, Polson, Bigfork and Libby.

Whitefish lost a rare match to Bigfork on Tuesday, 5-2. It was the first time the Vikings (6-3-2, 5-1) had defeated the Bulldogs. Whitefish plays Saturday at Columbia Falls (2-7, 1-4). Bigfork takes on Libby (4-6, 3-3) Thursday.

The No. 1 seed from Northern A will host a first-round playoff game Oct. 18 against the No. 2 seed from Southern A, which could most likely be Stevensville (7-2-1, 5-1).

The No. 2 seed from the North would take on the winner of a play-in game between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams from the East on Oct. 13-14. The No. 3 team from Northern A, either Libby or Columbia Falls, will play the No. 1 seed from the South, which right now would be Corvallis (9-1, 6-0).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Whitefish is once again rolling into the postseason as a highly touted contender. But many soccer fans thought this would be a rebuilding year for one of the state’s premier programs after three key all-state players graduated from last season’s 9-2-2 team: Nathan Boone, Tommy Murphy and Jon Dittman.

Instead, head coach O’Brien Byrd reloaded with a squad of passionate players who accepted the challenge of carrying on Whitefish’s proud tradition.

After the initial summer workouts, Byrd pulled his coaches aside with a statement that surprised even him — “We’ve got a team here.”

“These guys are blowing away my expectations on a daily basis,” he said. “Usually I have very high expectations for our teams, but this year’s team, it was going to be OK if we struggled because we’re young and we lost a lot of experience. Then all of a sudden these guys got the look. They’ve got the glimmer. They’ve got it.”

For starters, the boys have an uncommonly high fitness level. The entire team’s average two-mile time, measured through an exercise known as the Cooper Test, was 13:49. Five players were under 12 minutes, which is considered college-level fitness.

“This is the fittest team I’ve ever coached,” Byrd said.

Leading this latest squad, Byrd is leaning on his three captains — Montano, Jared Johnson and Walter Sobba. As a sophomore last season, Johnson scored 19 goals, most on the team. This fall the talented midfielder has netted eight goals, fifth most in the state. Montano has nine goals, fourth most in the state. Sobba has led the defense, which has only let 16 goals get past.

The schedule wasn’t kind to Whitefish in the beginning. While trying to quickly develop their identity, the Bulldogs had to face the top two teams in the state. They lost to Corvallis 4-3 on Sept. 5 and a week later fell to Belgrade 3-1 on Sept. 13.

But sometimes losing early is a blessing in disguise.

“Even though we lost to Belgrade, it was a really good experience of playing them and seeing how they play,” Montano said. “We know we can definitely compete against them.”

Belgrade has the top scorer and best record in the state. The Panthers are 9-0, 3-0 and have outscored opponents 23-3. Chris Brayton leads Class A in scoring with 18 goals.

As the bracket goes this year, Whitefish and Belgrade could collide in the semifinals in Belgrade.

Are the Bulldogs nervous of that scenario? No way.

“When we played Belgrade, they were definitely the best team in the state, but I can’t honestly say that now,” Byrd said. “We played both (Corvallis and Belgrade) and we know if we have another chance we could maybe
upset them.”

There’s also some added motivation for this group of boys: if Whitefish wins its first two matches in the postseason bracket, it would host the Class A state championship on Nov. 1. The last time that happened was in 2012, when the Bulldogs claimed their second consecutive championship, and fourth title since 2006, in front of more than 2,000 fans at Smith Fields.

“That’s incredible motivation for us,” Byrd said of potentially hosting the championship again.

Put another way, “We’re all super passionate,” Montano said. “We want it.”