2016 Fall Sports Preview

Breaking down the local storylines in golf, cross country, volleyball and soccer

By Dillon Tabish
Glacier's Annie Hill runs by herself during a race in high school. Hill, who won two state cross country championships, now runs at the University of Colorado. Beacon file photo


Forty-five years after girls cross country was officially sanctioned as a high school sport in Montana, the Treasure State has a remarkable tradition of stellar distance runners.

The latest, and one of the greatest, is in our midst — Glacier junior Annie Hill.

Hill is one of the nation’s fastest prep runners and the reigning Gatorade Montana Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. This fall, the all-class record holder will have a chance at winning her third consecutive Class AA title in her hometown. The state cross country meet comes to Kalispell for the first time on Oct. 22 at Rebecca Farm.

This season should be another spectacular one for Hill, who will try to whittle down her current record of 16 minutes, 30 seconds, which she set a year ago in Great Falls. Her top Class AA competitor from last year, Christina Aragon of Billings Senior, has graduated on to Stanford University. Billings Senior sophomore Tiahna Vladic ran exceptionally well last season, clocking 17:08, and could be Hill’s top competition this fall.

Flathead junior Kaitlin Wride is also one of the state’s best runners. Wride placed sixth at state last year, running 17:29. She followed up with an impressive track season that saw her run 4:58 in the 1,600-meter race.

Bozeman, which has won nine girls team championships in a row, welcomes back its top five runners and will be a force to reckon with.

In Bigfork, Bryn Morley is the reigning Class B state champion and the Valkyries are the reigning team champions with three of its top runners returning. Morley, now a junior, won last year’s title in a time of 17:26.15. She also helped Bigfork claim the team trophy for the first time since 2002. Sophomore Anya Young placed third a year ago and classmate Alicia Kalenak was 13th.

In the Class A ranks, Polson welcomes back two all-state runners: junior Ryan Harrop placed sixth last year (19:36) and Malia Seeley finished 10th (19:55). Sophomore Molly Sitter (20:02) finished 16th.

On the boys side, Flathead sophomore Ben Perrin is ready to emerge from the shadows of his state-champion older brothers, Zach and Jake, and establish his own legacy. As only a freshman, Ben ran 15:51 at the Class AA state meet in Great Falls. During the track season he made even more progress as an all-state runner, setting himself up as a championship contender in the making.

The Class AA boys title is largely up for grabs now that the top two finishers from a year ago — champion Jake Perrin and Helena’s Aidan Reed — have graduated.

Glacier returns three skilled runners: seniors Tevyn Stetson and Brock Adkins and sophomore Jordan Stetson.

Bozeman has the top two returning runners in the state, seniors Riley Collins and Chase Equall, and is seeking its eighth straight team championship.

In the Class A ranks, Columbia Falls senior Sage Wanner is back as an all-state talent. Wanner placed eighth a year ago in 16:05.

In the Class B ranks, Bigfork’s Logan Morley has graduated after back-to-back championships, leaving the podium open to a new victor.

Tiana Johnson hits during Flathead High School volleyball practice on Aug. 27, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Tiana Johnson hits during Flathead High School volleyball practice on Aug. 27, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


The reigning Class A state champions in Columbia Falls are back for more.

Head coach Jessy Matthews has almost her entire squad back, including all-state setter Cydney Finberg, all-state middle blocker Morgan Stenger, as well as standouts Kiara Burlage, Kaitlyn Casazza and Anna Nicosia. Last season Columbia Falls defeated Corvallis 25-17, 25-22 and 25-15 to win the team’s first state title since 1996. The Wildkats finished 20-3 overall.

Whitefish, which finished 13-8 overall last year, welcomes back all-state middle hitter Cailyn Ross. The Lady Bulldogs will try to return to the state tournament, where the girls lost out to Belgrade in the opening round a year ago.

In the Class AA ranks, Flathead would like to keep the momentum rolling with its 10th consecutive trip to the state tournament. Last season under first-year head coach Courtney Baker, the Bravettes went 15-7 in the regular season and earned an automatic bid to the tournament. The girls advanced to the second round before bowing out. Several top players graduated, including all-state libero Jourdon Schultz, but Baker has talented senior Tiana Johnson back, along with Alyssa Wisher and Abbi Chavez.

Glacier is in a similar situation after graduating a host of starters, but head coach Christy Harkins has talent waiting in the wings. The Wolfpack finished 15-11 last season after losing in a playoff match and missing out on the state tournament for the first time since 2009. Second-team all-conference middle blocker Nikki Krueger is back as a leader of the Pack.


Who will be the next great golfer from the Flathead Valley?

That remains to be seen now that several of the latest top talents have graduated, such as Class A state champion Coral Schulz at Whitefish or Glacier’s Teigan Avery and Tommy Mann.

Each school has young talent but now the exciting part will be watching to see who emerges with the championship-caliber abilities.

Glacier sophomore McKenna Tinseth placed eighth at the Class AA state tournament last year, shooting 84-83 — 167. The Glacier girls finished second as a team.

Whitefish, which has Bill Kahle as its new head coach, is loaded with young talent. The girls are the defending Class A state champs. The boys placed third last year.

The Class AA state tournament is at Lake Hills Golf Course in Billings, Sept. 29-30. The Class A state tournament is at Hamilton Golf Course, Oct. 1-2.

Whitefish's Haley Nicholson controls the ball as Whitefish beat Polson 2-0 on Oct. 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Whitefish’s Haley Nicholson controls the ball as Whitefish beat Polson 2-0 on Oct. 1, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


Kalispell is hosting the Class AA boys and girls state tournaments, Oct. 27-29, and both Glacier and Flathead would like berths at the home series.

The Glacier boys finished third in Western AA a year ago and advanced to the state tournament after defeating Helena Capital in overtime. The Wolfpack lost 3-0 to Bozeman in the opening round and finished the season 6-5-1 overall. Several standouts graduated, leaving open starting roles to be filled by this latest squad of players. Tyler Combs, who scored five goals last season, is one of the top returning players, along with Connor Heil, Parker Bedard and Brady Schultz.

Flathead is similarly looking for new leaders to emerge. Last year the Braves finished the season 3-4-5 overall. Sophomore Joey Russel is the team’s leading returning goal scorer. He scored a pair of goals in his freshman season.

In the Class AA girls field, both Flathead and Glacier are hoping to make progress from a year ago. The Bravettes finished 3-7-2 and the Wolfpack was 1-9-2. Flathead has a new head coach, Jenni Sipe, and returns a pair of standout underclassmen — sophomores Sadie Wilson and Shaye Thompson, who excelled a year ago. There is also junior Clare Vandenbosch, who will provide experience on the pitch. Glacier graduated several talented players but welcomes back the team’s top goal scorer, junior Cadie Williams, along with standout junior Ellie Stevens and sophomore Gabby Dickson.

In the Class A ranks, arguably the best female player in all divisions —Whitefish senior Haley Nicholson — is back on the pitch for one final season. Last year Nicholson scored 31 goals — the most in Montana — and guided Whitefish to the state semifinals. She also kicked field goals for the Bulldog football team, making four of five including a 33-yarder.

The Whitefish girls finished 10-3-1 overall after falling 5-3 to Billings Central in the semifinals. Billings Central won its seventh title in eight years last year. The Columbia Falls girls, the reigning Northern A champs, graduated four all-state players and a total of eight starters. Junior Hannah Gedlaman is back along with senior Kendra King, who will try to lead a young team of Wildkats under 20th year head coach Gary Trenerry.

Bigfork will try to improve upon its 1-9-2 finish from a year ago.

The Columbia Falls boys have a fully loaded team of returning players from last year, when the Wildcats went 5-8 overall. Head coach O’Brien Byrd lost only one starter and is hoping to build a dynasty in his hometown similar to his previous tenure in Whitefish. All-state goalie Brandon Karberg is back, along with standouts Logan Stephens and Paxton Fisher.

Polson is the reigning Northern A champ and brings back several key players, including all-staters Mike Mercer and Alex Encizo.

Whitefish welcomes back all-conference forward Xander Burger. The Bulldogs finished 3-8-1 overall a year ago.

Jay Forsyth is the new head coach in Libby, which went 7-4-1 a year ago.

The Bigfork boys graduated several key players, including goalie Ben Russell, from last year’s 2-9 squad.