Sports

2018 Fall Sports Preview

As football, volleyball, soccer, cross country and golf teams across the Flathead Valley begin practice for the 2018 season, we check in on all of the programs and athletes with sights set on late-season glory

The cracking of pads, thundering of footsteps and piercing early-morning whistles can be heard from Bigfork to Whitefish to Columbia Falls to right here in Kalispell as summer break is officially over for hundreds of high school athletes and coaches.

Yes, preparations for the 2018 fall season have been months in the making, but as of Aug. 10, the calendar has officially flipped to the 2018-19 academic year and another fall sports season — the busiest season of them all — is underway.

A new season always brings with it fresh optimism and a sense of opportunity, both for teams that reached the top of the mountain a year ago and for those who fell short. There are new coaches at a handful of spots and new varsity athletes ready to leave their imprint on programs where graduated seniors have left spots to be filled.

The 2017 season got off to a shaky start, with construction delays pushing back the debut of Legends Stadium’s new field turf, smoky skies wreaking havoc on game and practice schedules, and even a cyber terrorism scare canceling a weekend of activities. But when the smoke cleared, teams and athletes provided some remarkable moments. There was Flathead football’s win over Glacier in the first game at Legends Stadium — the Braves’ first in the series since 2008 — a first-ever state football championship won in Columbia Falls, the somewhat surprising runs of both Whitefish and Glacier to their respective boys soccer state title matches, and another state championship for Bigfork’s now-graduated cross country star Bryn Morley.

So as 2018 begins, the biggest question is which teams and players will provide those memorable moments this time around. We’re not in the prediction business, but to get you up to speed on what might matter, we present our look at all of the Flathead Valley’s fall sports teams. When the fun really begins in earnest later this month, we’ll keep you posted on all the action in every issue of the Flathead Beacon and online at www.flatheadbeacon.com.

For now, here’s our look at the 2018 fall sports season:

Flathead running back Blake Counts returns to anchor the Braves’ backfield this fall. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

FOOTBALL


Flathead Braves

Coach: Kyle Samson (5th season)

2017 Record: 6-4 (Lost in playoff quarterfinals)

First Game: Aug. 24 at Butte

Players to Watch: WR Anthony Jones, OL/DL Andrew Siderius, MLB Gunnar Landrum

Outlook: The Braves have a load of talent coming back on offense in running back Blake Counts, wide receiver Jones and a veteran offensive line. That’s an especially good thing this year because the Braves will be breaking in a new quarterback in senior Jaden MacNeil, an all-state safety a year ago. MacNeil brings a new dimension to the Flathead offense, giving them a serious threat to run from under center for the first time in at least three years, but he’s never thrown a pass in a varsity game. On defense, the Braves must replace a number of all-conference and all-state starters at every level, but the defensive line returns significant game experience.

Glacier Wolfpack

Coach: Grady Bennett (12th season)

2017 Record: 4-5 (Missed playoffs)

First Game: Aug. 24 at Billings Senior

Players to Watch: QB Evan Todd, DE Ethan Baines, LB Cole Crosby

Outlook: The Wolfpack started the 2017 season with four straight losses and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but that doesn’t mean last year was a total loss. Glacier discovered a quarterback midway through its third game by inserting Todd, who finished the year strong and begins his senior season as one of the top signal-callers in the state. There is less experience at the skill positions on offense, with Preston Blain stepping in for Drew Turner (now at the University of Montana) at running back, although the Wolfpack do bring back three starters on the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, Crosby anchors the defense from his linebacker spot and could be relied on heavily playing behind an inexperienced front.

Columbia Falls Wildcats

Coach: Jaxon Schweikert (7th season)

2017 Record: 9-1 (Won state championship)

First Game: Aug. 31 vs. Hamilton

Players to Watch: RB/LB Colten McPhee, OL/DL Gage Karlin, LB Parker Greene

Outlook: The Wildcats are well-stocked for a run at a repeat title, and have firmly established themselves as one of the top programs in Class A since Schweikert’s arrival seven years ago. Columbia Falls must replace some major contributors on offense and defense, but the cupboard is far from bare, led by McPhee, who averaged a mind-boggling 10 yards per carry as a junior and is a punishing defender. He’ll be taking handoffs this year from senior quarterback Drew Morgan, who was named to the all-conference second team a year ago as a tight end. The strength of this team might be on defense, however, where Schweikert says his linebackers are “flat out the best in the state” and Karlin, the team’s 325-pound nose guard, anchors the defensive line.

Whitefish Bulldogs

Coach: Chad Ross (9th season)

2017 Record: 1-7 (Missed playoffs)

First Game: Aug. 24 at Hamilton

Players to Watch: OL/DL Keegan Wold, TE/DE Dillon Botner, K Carver Gilman

Outlook: It has been a rocky two seasons in the years since the Bulldogs won the 2015 Class A state championship, but things are starting to look up in the north valley this fall. Whitefish was extremely young a year ago — starting seven sophomores — and often overmatched, but this year that means the Bulldogs boast a wealth of experience as they look to get back into the playoff picture. Strong-armed quarterback Chad Queen will be the full-time starter, and the 6-foot-5 Botner gives him a big target after missing last season with an injury. And if the Bulldogs can get anywhere close to scoring range, they can rely on Gilman, one of the best kickers in the state at any level.

Bigfork Vikings

Coach: Todd Emslie (10th consecutive season)

2017 Record: 6-3 (Lost in first round of state playoffs)

First Game: Aug. 24 vs. Manhattan Christian (at University of Montana)

Players to Watch: QB Anders Epperly, RB Randy Stultz, OL/DL Logan Gilliard

Outlook: The Vikings enjoyed a lengthy run at the top of District 7B but have been unseated the last two years by two-time defending state champion Eureka. Those two teams figure to once again battle it out for league supremacy, and the Vikings bring back not just experience on the gridiron but a senior class that played a pivotal role in Bigfork’s undefeated 2017-18 basketball season. Epperly, the Vikings’ point guard on the hardwood, steps in to the quarterback position this year and brings with him outstanding field vision and a commanding presence in the huddle. It doesn’t hurt that he will also have all-state running back Stultz to hand the ball off to behind a seasoned offensive line.

Glacier players celebrate a point against Flathead during the crosstown volleyball match on Oct. 26, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

VOLLEYBALL


Flathead Bravettes

Coach: Nicole Fairclough (2nd season)

First Match: Aug. 25 vs. Great Falls C.M. Russell

Outlook: Flathead has missed the Class AA state tournament each of the last two years, but the Bravettes have the firepower to make a return trip to Bozeman later this winter. Julia Burden, a junior, and Madde Boles, a senior, were both named to the all-conference second team a year ago.

Glacier Wolfpack

Coach: Christy Harkins (12th season)

First Match: Aug. 25 vs. Great Falls High

Outlook: The Wolfpack must replace a pair of graduated standouts in setter Ashley Montini and outside hitter Anna Schrade, but Harkins’ teams always find a way to challenge the state’s best by the end of the season. Having Kali Gulick back is a start for a team that reached the 2017 state tournament but exited after two matches.

Columbia Falls Wildkats

Coach: Jolandie Brooks (2nd season)

First Match: Aug. 24 at Browning Tip-Off Tournament

Outlook: Columbia Falls won back-to-back state championships in 2015 and 2016 but missed the state tournament altogether in a rebuilding year of sorts last fall. This year might see a return to prominence for the Kats, who bring back all-state hitter Ryley Kehr and all-conference sophomore Hannah Schweikert.

Whitefish Bulldogs

Coach: Addy Connelly (2nd season)

First Match: Aug. 24 at Browning Tip-Off Tournament

Outlook: Connelly took the Bulldogs to the state tournament at the end of a tumultuous 2017 season that began with longtime coach Jackie Fuller resigning just two weeks into the year. This year, while Connelly says the Bulldogs may lack “a big gun,” they have a young and hungry roster with plenty of athleticism.

Bigfork Valkyries

Coach: Schuyler Tudor (4th season)

First Match: Aug. 24 at Choteau Invitational

Outlook: The young Vals have 17 underclassmen in the program, but that doesn’t mean 2018 has to be a rebuilding year. With lots of spots open and playing time available, a competitive slate of early practices could help form a regular rotation around four-year varsity player Brooke Fraley.

The Columbia Falls Wildcats play a match under the lights at Flip Darling Memorial Field. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

BOYS SOCCER


Flathead Braves

Coach: Zach Brenneman (1st season)

First Match: Aug. 25 at Great Falls Jamboree

Outlook: Don’t sleep on the Braves, who despite having a first-year coach could be one of the better teams in the Western Conference. Jalen Hawes is just a junior but his coach calls him a “natural leader,” and senior Colter Goss netted four goals a year ago for a team that just missed the state tournament.

Glacier Wolfpack

Coach: Ryan Billiet (5th season)

First Match: Aug. 25 at Great Falls Jamboree

Outlook: It’s a testament to the culture created by the thoughtful and loquacious Billiet that the Wolfpack program boasts nearly 50 players this fall, and why wouldn’t numbers be up coming off an historic season that saw Glacier lose in the state championship match. The bad news? This year’s Wolfpack team is replacing 13 seniors and nine of 11 starters.

Columbia Falls Wildcats

Coach: O’Brien Byrd (4th season)

First Match: Aug. 30 vs. Bigfork

Outlook: Coming off a 6-6-0 season, the Wildcats are still young with only four seniors on the varsity squad. Those four seniors, though, play arguably the four most important positions on the field: center back, two at center midfield, and center forward. Still, the Wildcats have work to do if they want to catch conference frontrunners Whitefish and Polson.

Whitefish Bulldogs

Coach: John Lacey (4th season)

First Match: Aug. 28 at Bigfork

Outlook: The man who replaced O’Brien Byrd at Whitefish, Lacey may have his best team yet this fall, and that’s saying something considering the Bulldogs were one game away from a state championship last year. That’s because last year’s Bulldogs team started seven freshmen and sophomores in the state championship match, and that did not include returning all-state midfielders Xander Burger and Sam Menicke.

Bigfork Vikings

Coach: Joe Feise (4th season)

First Match: Aug. 28 vs. Whitefish

Outlook: Playing up at Class A since the state of Montana does not sanction Class B soccer, the Vikings regularly find themselves at an enrollment disadvantage and that’s no different this season. Bigfork might lack depth within the program, but they do bring back an all-conference midfielder in Jeremy Herd.

Head coach Brenden Byrd talks to his team during Glacier soccer practice on Oct. 4, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

GIRLS SOCCER


Flathead Bravettes

Coach: Bledy Doda (1st season)

First Match: Aug. 25 at Great Falls Jamboree

Outlook: Former coach Jenni Sipe may not have been able to pile up many wins in her two years leading the Bravettes, but the roster is certainly more talent-laden now than when she arrived. Sophomore Skyleigh Thompson made the all-state team as a freshman and her sister, senior Shayenn, scored 12 goals last year.

Glacier Wolfpack

Coach: Brenden Byrd (7th season)

First Match: Aug. 25 at Great Falls Jamboree

Outlook: The Wolfpack must replace their most decorated player ever in striker Cadie Williams, the reigning Gatorade Montana Girls Soccer Player of the Year, but last year’s roster did include a talented freshman class that returns with a year of experience under their belts. Sophomores Madison Becker and Taylor Brisendine could lead the way if the Wolfpack is to return to the Class AA state tournament.

Columbia Falls Wildkats

Coach: O’Brien Byrd (2nd season)

First Match: Aug. 30 vs. Bigfork

Outlook: The defending conference champions, Columbia Falls has its sights set on advancing even further than the state semifinals this year. The Wildkats are replacing one of the top scorers in the state in Hannah Gedlaman, but Byrd believes junior Josie Windauer — who will play as a striker and defender, sometimes in the same match — could be even more prolific this fall.

Whitefish Bulldogs

Coach: Roland Benedict (4th season)

First Match: Aug. 28 at Bigfork

Outlook: The Bulldogs could pose the toughest test in Columbia Falls’ quest to repeat as conference champs, with four all-state or all-conference performers eligible to return. That group is headlined by junior midfielder/forward Anna Cook, who was named to the all-state team as a sophomore.

Bigfork Valkyries

Coach: Thaddeus Crouch (1st season)

First Match: Aug. 28 vs. Whitefish

Outlook: First-year coach Crouch has good numbers to work with this season and a group that’s looking to take another step forward after picking up a pair of victories in 2017. Senior Jordan Nelson is back one year after landing on the all-conference second team.

Flathead’s Ben Perrin, left, and Aren Alexander-Battee, right, lead the pack during the Glacier Invite cross country race on Oct. 11, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

CROSS COUNTRY


Flathead Braves/Bravettes

Coach: Jesse Rumsey

First Event: Aug. 25 at Libby Time Trials

Top Returners: Boys — Ben Perrin (6th at state); Girls — Tori Noland-Gillespie (18th at state)

Glacier Wolfpack

Coach: Jacob Deitz

First Event: Aug. 31 at Cut Bank Invitational

Top Returners: Boys — Aren Alexander-Battee (9th at state), Simon Hill (10th)

Columbia Falls Wildcats

Coach: Jim Peacock

First Event: Aug. 25 at Libby Time Trials

Top Returners: Boys — Joe Lamb (11th at state)

Whitefish Bulldogs

Coach: Richard Menicke

First Event: Aug. 25 at Libby Time Trials

Top Returners: Girls — Ella Greenberg (8th at state), Jessica Henson (19th), Braya Hobson (25th)

Bigfork Vikings/Valkyries

Coach: Beau Wielkoszewski

First Event: Aug. 25 at Libby Time Trials

Top Returners: Girls — Anya Young (2nd at state), Alicia Kalenak (7th)

Meadow Lake Golf Course. Beacon File Photo

GOLF


Flathead Braves/Bravettes

Coach: Kyle Dunfee

First Event: Aug. 13-14 at Great Falls Invitational

Top Returners: Girls — Marcella Mercer (9th at state)

Glacier Wolfpack

Coach: Jim Schaible

First Event: Aug. 13-14 at Great Falls Invitational

Top Returners: No top 15 finishers in 2017

Columbia Falls Wildcats

Coach: Gene Marcille

First Event: Aug. 15 at Columbia Falls Invitational

Top Returners: No top 15 finishers in 2017

Whitefish Bulldogs

Coach: Bill Kahle

First Event: Aug. 15 at Columbia Falls Invitational

Top Returners: Boys — Brendan Buls (18th at state); Girls — Megan Archibald (10th), Ella Shaw (11th)