Foot Forte

Whether it’s football or futbol, Haley Nicholson is showcasing her talented footwork in two sports for Whitefish

By Dillon Tabish
Whitefish's Haley Nicholson competes with Olivia Hewston as Whitefish beat Polson 2-0 on Oct. 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In the final minutes of last week’s soccer match against Polson, Haley Nicholson fired a shot from 20 yards out. The trajectory and accuracy of the kick resembled a field goal in football as the ball flew past the goalie into the net, notching Nicholson’s second score on the day and sealing Whitefish’s pivotal 2-0 win over its conference foe.

The following night, Nicholson frustrated Polson once again, but this time she actually was booting a football through the uprights. Last Friday she went seven for seven on extra points in Whitefish’s 49-0 win over the Pirates, tying a Class A record for extra points in a single game, according to the Montana High School Association record books. It was the second time this season she hit seven extra points in a single game.

This fall Nicholson is putting her best foot forward in both football and futbol.

The junior at Whitefish High School is the state’s leading scorer on the soccer pitch with 22 goals in only 11 games. As the Lady Bulldogs march toward the playoffs, the all-state forward is on a feverish pace and already surpassed her scoring total from all of last year, when she netted 21 goals to lead Class A.

At the same time, Nicholson is in her second season as an all-conference kicker for the 5-1 Whitefish football team, which is chasing a playoff berth with three games left in the regular season.

On Aug. 25, she made a 33-yard field goal against Havre. Two weeks ago, she hit seven extra points in Whitefish’s win over Corvallis.

Overall this season she is 31 for 33 in extra points and two for four in field goals, and ranks tied for fifth in the Northwestern A for scoring with 30 points.

There are multi-sport athletes, and then there is Nicholson.

“It’s frustrating at times going from sport to sport and then home to do homework. The time management is hard but it’s getting easier,” she said.

A normal weekday for Nicholson includes attending a full slate of classes followed by soccer practice before rushing to football practice. If she arrives late for football, she kicks by herself into the night before going home around 8 p.m. to eat dinner and study or finish homework.

Double duty doesn’t end with autumn, either. She plays soccer year-round and plays basketball in winter and track in spring.

“I figured that someday I’m going to look back and not have this opportunity,” she said. “My life someday will be a lot different, so I might as well do it while I can.”

Whitefish is sure benefiting from Nicholson’s gusto.

With the win over Polson, the Lady Bulldogs improved to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in conference. It also vaulted Whitefish over Polson (7-3, 4-1) and into first place in the Northern A standings with two matches left in the regular season before the playoffs start Oct. 17. Whitefish finishes at home against Bigfork (1-6-1) on Oct. 8 and against Columbia Falls (5-2-1, 3-1) on Oct. 10.

First-year head coach Roland Benedict has seen the well-balanced squad flourish with Nicholson leading the offense while the Bulldog defense, including goalie Kes Nelson, has allowed only 14 goals all season.

Last year’s team fell in the semifinals to eventual state-champ Laurel. Taking over a proud program that has enjoyed years of success, Benedict instilled a disciplined work ethic.

“When they play soccer, they have to work harder than everyone else. And that bleeds into life. Everything I try to teach the girls are life lessons,” he said.

He also emphasized the importance of making mistakes and learning from them.

“Hard work will always beat anything. It will trump talent and skill,” he said.

Nicholson has both the talent and workmanlike attitude.

“She’s obsessed with the game,” Benedict said.

Earlier this fall, she scored five goals and assisted on three more as Whitefish beat Livingston. It was her second career five-goal game.

She started playing around the same time she learned to walk, and since she was young her footwork has amazed. Both her feet are dominant, and she can score with either, as countless opposing goalies have learned.

As a freshman, she notched 18 goals, fifth most in Class A.

That same year, a friend recommended she try out for the football team and put her skills to the test on the field. The summer before her sophomore year, head coach Chad Ross asked if she wanted to give it a try after hearing about her kicking skills.

At tryouts, she made 12 of 12 extra points.

“I wasn’t sure if that was good or not,” she said. “The coach said, ‘Wow.’”

Nicholson’s parents were hesitant at first, especially her father, Rob. Eventually they gave their daughter the OK, and Nicholson made her debut in football pads in the fourth game of the season.

“I was nervous but excited. My heart was beating super fast,” she said. “After the first kick it all fell into place.”

She nailed her first extra point and that season made 24 consecutive, second most in state history for any class, according to the MHSA. She also hit a 33-yard field goal.

“The guys are awesome. They’re like a bunch of big brothers and they’re really respectful and supportive,” she said.

While enjoying success, she hasn’t avoided the bumps and bruises of football. Against Columbia Falls last year she sustained a severe cut below her knee, which left a scar.

After the game, she taped it up and played her soccer game, no problem.

Just another day for Nicholson.

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