2017 Fall Sports Preview

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

By Dillon Tabish
Glacier's Annie Hill leads the pack at the start of the Class AA state cross country championships last year. Beacon File Photo

Cross Country

Time flies when you’re as fast as Annie Hill and Bryn Morley.

Hill, a senior at Glacier, and Morley, a senior at Bigfork, are entering the final seasons of their all-time great high school running careers. Both girls are coming off remarkable spring track seasons that saw them pile up even more medals. Hill swept the long distance events at the Class AA state championship track meet, while Morley did the same at the Class B level.

Between spring and fall, they both logged what they consider to be their best summers of running in anticipation of the upcoming season.

“I want to have my best cross country season,” Morley said.

Hill added: “I’m hoping to set some course records. I want to keep improving. I like making sure that my time is better than the year before … It will go by really fast, so I’m trying to have fun.”

Hill has narrowed her list of potential colleges to four Pac-12 schools. A year ago, she stalled down the stretch of the AA championship race and finished seventh, clocking 17:36. She will try to unseat Tiahna Vladic, a junior at Billings Senior who won the state title last year in 16:40.74. Hill previously won the AA title as a freshman and sophomore.

Morley has narrowed her list of prospective colleges down to the University of Washington, University of Arkansas, University of Montana and University of Colorado, where her sister, Makena, runs.

Bryn will try to claim her third Class B championship before seeking bids to elite national races alongside Hill, including the Foot Locker series.

Both girls are surrounded by strong teams. The Bigfork girls placed second last fall and welcome back a crew of talented runners, including Anya Young, who placed second at state, and Alicia Kalenak, who took 11th.

The Glacier boys claimed third place as a team last fall. Elijah Boyd, now a senior, took 13th at the Class AA championship meet a year ago.

Flathead’s Kaitlin Wride is back after a stellar junior season that finished with a 13th-place performance at the AA state meet. Ben Perrin, now a junior at Flathead, took 12th at state a year ago.

Whitefish’s Ella Greenberg, a junior, placed 12th at the Class A state meet last fall, and classmate Braya Hobson, finished 13th.

Reigning Champs: The Bozeman boys and girls are both nine-time defending champs at the Class AA level. Frenchtown won the Class A boys title, while Hardin won the girls trophy. Townsend captured the Class B boys championship and Manhattan won the girls title. Manhattan Christian won Class C boys and Winnett/Melstone won Class C girls.

Changes: Montana cross country is undergoing a noticeable change this fall when it changes its race format from three miles to 5K, or 3.1 miles. The move, which was approved last spring by the Montana High School Association executive board, came at the recommendation of coaches who felt Montana needed to join the majority of other states that use the 5K format. Only a handful of states still use the three-mile distance, and colleges compete in 5K.

Libby’s Ryggs Johnston watches a shot at Meadow Lake Golf Course in Columbia Falls on Aug. 24, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


There’s a familiar, dominating presence joining the fall golf season.

Ryggs Johnston, a junior at Libby High School, is now competing in the Northwestern A conference after the Loggers moved classifications from Class B, which competes in the spring for golf.

Johnston, one of the nation’s top junior golfers and an Arizona State University recruit, leaves the Class B ranks as the two-time state champ and state record holder after he shot 61-67 — 128 at Marias Valley Golf Club in Shelby last spring.

This fall he’s making quick work of the courses. Two weeks ago, he fired an 11-under 61 at Whitefish Lake Golf Club, breaking the course record previously held by professional Ryan Malby. The Class A boys state record is 137, set by Sam Krause of Whitefish in 2006. At the Columbia Falls Invitational last week at Meadow Lake Resort, Johnston won by six strokes, carding a 3-under 69.

Whitefish’s Gracie Young is back after a stellar sophomore season that ended with an eighth-place finish at the Class A state tournament. She won the Columbia Falls Invite with a 94.

Reigning Champs: Billings West won the boys AA title and Bozeman captured the girls championship. Sidney won the girls Class A championship and Hamilton won the boys title.

Columbia Falls can host night time games with new stadium lights. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


It only took a few days for O’Brien Byrd to lose his voice. It’s to be expected — Byrd, a Columbia Falls alumnus and former national coach of the year, is working double duty as the new head coach of the Columbia Falls girls soccer program and the boys team.

Byrd is taking over the girls program from Greg Trenerry, who retired in December after 20 years as head coach. Under Trenerry, the Wildkats were 174-78-26, qualified for the Class A playoffs 16 times and won six of the last eight Northern A conference titles. The team won the state championship in 2004 and placed second in 2014, 2012 and 2001. Last year’s squad finished 7-5-1 overall.

The boys team went 11-1-1 last fall, won the Northern A conference title for the first time in 11 years and advanced to the state semifinals.

“Other than losing my voice, it’s been a great start to the season,” Byrd said.

Byrd is able to lead both programs with the help of a skilled coaching staff, including Chris Fannon, who is serving as associate head coach of the boys team, and Kristiana Konkol, the girls associate coach.

“The benefits of having both programs under the same philosophies and the same rules and the same expectations, that’s a direct benefit. It really is,” Byrd said.

Byrd has nine returning starters but mostly a young squad of girls. It’s a talented bunch, but it will have to hold its own in a competitive Northern A conference.

Whitefish is the reigning Northern A champs after finishing last season 9-4 overall and 7-1 in conference. The Lady Bulldogs welcome back a strong squad, as does Polson, which was second a year ago at 10-2-1 overall and advanced to the state semifinal.

Jamie Whealon is the new head coach of the Polson girls team. Whealon, a Polson alumnus, played on the school’s inaugural team in 1997.

Billings Central and Laurel are also presumptive favorites entering the season.

On the boys side, Columbia Falls graduated 10 seniors from last year’s talented squad, and Byrd is training a mostly new lineup of “hungry, motivated” players.

“It will be a new-look boys team, but they have high, lofty goals,” Byrd said.

Bigfork is back in the Northern A mix after forfeiting last season due to low numbers. The Vikings boast 17 players. Libby/Troy is competing as a co-op team. Polson placed second in the conference last season at 6-5 overall, followed by Whitefish, 4-8, and Libby, 3-6-1.

Billings Central and Belgrade, the defending Class A state champs, are presumptive favorites again.

At the Class AA level, the Glacier boys will try to return to the state tournament after qualifying a year ago. The Wolfpack edged Flathead 2-1 in a crosstown playoff match to advance to the state tourney, which was hosted in Kalispell.

The Flathead girls picked up their first win of last season with a 2-0 victory over Glacier in a playoff match last fall.

Abi Fiske, left, and Allie Gagnon compete for a ball. Glacier defeated Flathead 20-25, 26-24, 25-20, 25-20 in the crosstown volleyball match on Sept. 29, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


Columbia Falls graduated several all-state players from last year’s state championship team, but the Wildkats are eager to reload and rebuild a title contender. Jolandie Brooks, a former junior varsity coach in Columbia Falls, is the new head coach, replacing Jessy Matthews, who stepped down after two successful seasons at the helm. Over the last two years, the Wildkats won back-to-back Class A state championships and were 42-3 overall. The 2015 squad won the program’s first state title since 1996. Seniors Talia Sova and Bridget Barta are leading the Kats this season.

Whitefish will try to continue its recent success and the Lady Bulldogs have three seniors — all-state defensive specialist Serena Hemmingson, Becca Catina, Cailyn Ross and Annisa Brown — leading the new squad. Last year Whitefish went 14-8 overall and advanced to the state tournament. Polson placed third at 6-11.

The Northwestern A conference has expanded and now features six teams, including new additions Browning, Libby and Ronan. Frenchtown has moved to Southwestern A.

In Class B, all-state outside hitter Abby Ellison is leading the Bigfork Valkyries, who went 10-5 overall a year ago.

In the Class AA ranks, Nicole Fairclough is the new head coach at Flathead High School. Fairclough replaces Courtney Baker, who stepped down in March after two seasons. The Bravettes were 3-14 overall last season and 15-7 overall the prior year. Fairclough grew up in Kent, Washington and competed in varsity volleyball all four years at Kent Ridge High School, along with playing on a nationally competitive club team. She attended Montana State University and graduated in December 2014 with an elementary education degree. She has coached volleyball at various levels, including two seasons as the sophomore coach at Bozeman High School in 2013-14.

Glacier graduated several standouts from last year’s squad, which went 13-6 overall and advanced to the state tournament, bringing home a third-place trophy.

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