The Year in Sports

From high school football championships to record-breaking swims, 2017 was a year to remember

Columbia Falls, Eureka Win State Football Championships

Columbia Falls won the first state football championship in school history on its home field, beating Hamilton 26-14 to win the Class A title on Nov. 18.

The Wildcats (9-1) lost in the championship game a year ago, but this time around a raucous home crowd at Sattherwaite Memorial Field saw the home team hold off a late Broncs charge and seal the win with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Austin Green to Ben Windauer midway through the fourth quarter.

Auguste Emond kicked four field goals in the win, while Green and Windauer hooked up for a pair of scoring strikes.

Sixty miles to the north, Eureka won a second straight Class B state championship by blowing out Shelby 47-7 on its home field.

The Lions went 11-0 in defense of their first-ever state title in 2016, and didn’t need an improbable last-second touchdown to win this time around. Garrett Graves threw for two touchdowns, ran for another and recorded an interception in the 2017 chipper.

Glacier Boys Win First State Hoops Championship

The Glacier boys basketball team brought a state championship to Kalispell for the first time since 1989 with a thrilling 46-42 win over Bozeman at the Class AA state tournament in Great Falls in early March.

The Wolfpack finished 20-3 behind all-state senior Jaxen Hashley but had to finish off the Hawks in the championship game without the 6-foot-6 Hashley, who fouled out with roughly three minutes remaining. Caden Harkins and Patrick O’Connell calmly went 4-for-4 from the free throw line in the final 1:22 to secure the victory.

The title was the first in Glacier history and the first for head coach Mark Harkins, who has led the Wolfpack in each of its 10 seasons.

Flathead, Eureka Win State Wrestling Titles

The Flathead Braves didn’t need an individual state champion to get back on top.

They did it as a team.

Flathead won the Class AA state wrestling championship for the first time since 2010 at the Billings MetraPark in February, dominating the field despite failing to have a single wrestler win a title in his or her weight class. The team finished with 251 points behind a remarkable 13 top six finishers, well clear of runner-up Bozeman (189 1/2 points).

Flathead’s top six finishers included Tilynne Vasquez (6th at 103 pounds), who became the first female to earn all-state honors in Montana wrestling history. Bryce Schaffer (113), Trae Vasquez (132) and Payton Hume (152) all finished second at their respective weights.

Jeff Thompson was tabbed to coach the team before the start of the season, returning to a post he held from 2000-08. The 2017 state title was the fifth of Thompson’s Flathead career.

Kalispell did have one state champion at the Class AA meet: Glacier’s Justin Gibson, who won at 138 pounds.

Also at MetraPark, Eureka won its first-ever state championship in Class B/C behind an undefeated Garrett Graves.

A University of Montana football commit who quarterbacked the Lions to back-to-back state football titles, Graves was 39-0 on the mat in his junior season and routed Thompson Falls’ Jase Sorenson to win the 170-pound state title. Eureka’s Jonathan Schmidt (138), Cannan Smith (152), Joe Fehr (205) and Kaelan Yanak (285) all nabbed runner-up honors.

Columbia Falls was one spot short of making it three Northwest Montana state wrestling champions, finishing second in Class A. The MatCats were well short of powerhouse Havre, which won its fifth consecutive title with a whopping 257 points. Columbia Falls totaled 131.

Ben Windauer was Columbia Falls’ top finisher, earning second at 145 pounds.

C-Falls Girls Finally Break Through, Win State Title

After three years of near misses, Columbia Falls’ senior class cashed in one last opportunity and won a state championship with a 73-50 win over Hardin in the Class A state championship game on March 4.

The Wildkats cut down the nets in Butte one year after finishing second in Class A. In 2014 and 2015, Columbia Falls wound up third. The school’s most recent girls basketball title had been all the way back in 1983.

Seniors Peyton Kehr and Kiara Burlage led the way in the championship game, with Kehr notching game-highs in points (22) and rebounds (10). Burlage added 19 points and another senior, Cydney Finberg, had nine points, five rebounds and two assists without a turnover.

Local Runners Shine at State Meet, Hill Makes College Choice

Bigfork’s Bryn Morley won her third straight Class B individual title, Polson’s Beatrix Frissell topped Class A and eight Northwest Montana teams notched top-five finishes at October’s state cross country meet in Helena.

Morley was well clear of the field by the time she hit the tape, with her time of 18:30.51 more than 80 seconds faster than runner-up Anya Young, her Bigfork teammate. As a team, the Vals finished second behind state champion Manhattan. Morley won state titles as a sophomore, junior and senior, the three years immediately following her older sister Makena’s four consecutive state championships.

In Class AA, Glacier’s boys took home second place behind top 10 finishes for Aren Alexander-Battee (9th) and Simon Hill (10th). Flathead’s Ben Perrin was sixth in the same race. The Bravettes finished fourth in the girls team standings, led by eighth-place finisher Kaitlin Wride. Glacier’s Annie Hill was third.

Hill, a senior, verbally committed to attend the University of Colorado in the fall. Throughout her career, Hill has consistently ranked among the top prep runners in the nation. She was named the 2016-17 Gatorade Montana Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year in June, becoming the first Glacier athlete to win the prestigious award. Hill will join Makena Morley on a Buffaloes squad that finished third at the NCAA Division I cross country championships.

Polson and Whitefish’s girls teams, Columbia Falls’ boys, and Eureka’s boys and girls also finished in the top five in their respective classes.

Johnston Wins Two State Golf Titles in One Year

Libby High School was moved from Class B to Class A in the summer of 2017 and Loggers phenom Ryggs Johnston took advantage of the unusual circumstances to win two state golf championships in the same calendar year.

Johnston, a junior in 2017-18, won the Class B state tournament in May with a two-day score of 128 (16 under par) to break the all-class state record by three strokes. Johnston dominated the Marias Valley Golf Club in Shelby on day one of the tournament when he shot a blistering 11-under 61. He finished the tournament 14 shots better than his nearest opponent.

Less than four months later, Johnston won the Class A state title with a 10-under 134, 12 shots clear of the field. He set another record at the tournament at Sidney Country Club, breaking the Class A state record of 137, which was set by Whitefish’s Sam Krause in 2006.

In Montana, Classes AA and A hold their golf championships in the fall, while the lower classes compete in the spring.

Johnston is regarded as one of the top prep golfers in the country and has committed to play collegiately at Arizona State beginning in 2019.

Legends Stadium Gets New Turf

Voters in 2016 approved a bond that included $958,000 to renovate Legends Stadium, and, one year later, the venerable south Kalispell football and track complex received its massive makeover and debuted with the annual crosstown football game.

Flathead beat Glacier 31-19 on Sept. 28, the first game in Kalispell for both teams in 2017 after prolonged construction delays forced both to play de-facto home games at other local high schools. The win marked Flathead’s first in the annual rivalry since 2008.

The turf’s installation allowed both Flathead and Glacier’s soccer teams to play parts of their seasons at Legends Stadium without fear of damaging the field, which had been natural grass. Problems had plagued Legends’ prior surface for years, including poor drainage and the development of a large crown at midfield. Supporters of the turf believe the new surface will minimize the risk of player injuries and allow the field to host additional events.

Flathead Football Back in Postseason

Fourth-year coach Kyle Samson and the Braves reached the Class AA state football playoffs for the first time since 2005, finishing a turnaround season with a 6-4 record.

Flathead earned the fourth seed and hosted Helena Capital in early November but fell to the Bruins 24-10 at Legends Stadium. Despite the loss, it was still a banner season for the Braves. Flathead earned regular-season wins versus Bozeman, Helena and Glacier for the first time in several seasons.

Former Coach Returns to Lead UM Football

Bobby Hauck, who coached the Griz to seven straight playoff appearances but whose tenure was marred by off-field infractions committed by players he recruited, was hired to replace Bob Stitt as Montana’s head football coach in late November.

Hauck went 80-17 as Montana’s head coach from 2003-09. He left to take the head job at UNLV from 2010-14. Last season, he was the special teams coordinator and associate head coach at San Diego State.

In his first seven seasons in Missoula, Hauck oversaw a run of on-field success that included three appearances in the national championship game. But the program also garnered negative attention after Hauck’s players and recruits committed a string of violent crimes.

Hauck could have a number of returnees with Northwest Montana ties on his first team, including safeties Josh Sandry (Bigfork) and Evan Epperly (Glacier), kicker Brandon Purdy (Glacier), wide receivers Matt Rensvold (Polson) and Jed Nagler (Whitefish), quarterback Tanner Wilson (Polson), and linebackers Gage Smith (Whitefish) and Andrew Harris (Glacier). That group is slated to be joined by incoming freshmen Garrett Graves (Eureka), Max Morris (Glacier), Jackson Pepe (Glacier) and Drew Turner (Glacier).

Bigfork Girls Win First Track Title in 25 Years

Bryn Morley and Haile Norred won multiple individual titles to highlight a dominating performance by the Valkyries at the Class B state track meet in Butte.

Bigfork won its first title since 1992 with 109 points, more than twice as many as second-place Baker.

Morley swept the distance races, winning the 800-meter (2:15), 1,600 (5:03.50) and 3,200 (11:06.08). Norred was first in the 200 (26.02) and 400 (57.95).

Jorgensen Calls it a Career

Paul Jorgensen called an end to a remarkable 45-year career as Flathead’s cross country coach in late November, announcing he would step into retirement following the 2018 track and field season.

In his nearly half-century at the helm, Flathead won 24 state team championships and his runners took home 22 individual state titles. He was twice named the National High School Athletic Association’s national cross country coach of the year. Jorgenson’s charges included Zoe Nelson, who won a Foot Locker national championship in 2002.

In late December, Jesse Rumsey was announced as Jorgenson’s successor. Rumsey ran for Jorgenson as a Flathead student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and has been a part of the cross country coaching staff at Flathead since 2007.

Glacier’s Soccer Seasons Make History

Conner Heil scored in the waning moments to send Glacier’s boys soccer team to the state title match for the first time in school history in late October.

Heil’s goal gave the Wolfpack a 2-1 win against previously undefeated Billings Senior and set up a final showdown against conference rival Missoula Hellgate. Glacier came up short in that match — 4-2 in overtime — while playing much of the second half one player down due to a red card.

Glacier’s girls also reached the state tournament, finishing sixth, ending the sensational career of senior Cadie Williams. Williams was easily the state’s leading scorer, tallying 33 goals and notching 14 assists. After the season, Williams was named to the prestigious United Soccer Coaches Fall Girls High School All-Northwest Region team, the only Montanan to be so honored. She will play soccer at Montana State University-Billings next fall.

Swimmer Conquers Flathead Lake

Emily von Jentzen became the first recorded person to swim the length of Flathead Lake, down and back, accomplishing the feat on July 30.

It took von Jentzen, an accomplished distance swimmer and the head swim coach at Columbia Falls and Whitefish high schools, more than 40 hours to cover a distance of 56 miles. The then 34-year-old left the Somers boat launch at 6 a.m. on Saturday, July 29, reaching Polson at approximately 1 a.m. Sunday. The return trip brought her back to Somers around 10 p.m.

Von Jentzen swam the return leg of her journey alongside John Cole, who became just the sixth person to swim the length of the lake in one direction.

Columbia Falls Cyclist Wins Fourth Straight Championship

Rose Grant bounced back from a series of violent crashes and a major knee surgery to win the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championship for the fourth year in a row.

Grant eked out the win over Massachusetts rider Crystal Anthony after 50 miles of rugged racing. The Columbia Falls resident endured a dislocated shoulder and surgery to repair a snapped ACL and torn MCL in her knee. Grant battled through a lengthy rehabilitation process to return to her bike in March. Two months later, she was in Arkansas winning the national crown.

Local Fighter Does Battle on ESPN

Kenny Guzman, a 30-year-old carpenter who lives in Happy Valley, made his televised debut on Sept. 22 when he was stopped in the second round of a nationally televised bout in Tucson, Arizona. The fight was broadcast on ESPN.

Irish Olympian Michael Conlan landed a solid right hand in the final seconds of round two and the referee stopped the featherweight fight. A former Golden Gloves champion, Guzman’s professional record fell to 3-1 while Conlan improved to 4-0. The bout was scheduled for six rounds.