Sports

Return to Glory

After a few seasons out of the spotlight, Montana’s most storied soccer program once again has a team ready for center stage

What if you had spent your entire lifetime waiting for the Whitefish Bulldogs to play for the Montana High School Association boys soccer state championship?

Well, for one thing, you wouldn’t have started kindergarten yet. And for another, your suffering ended last fall. But a brief absence from the state’s biggest stage does qualify as suffering, at least in Whitefish, where the Bulldogs are in the midst of the longest championship drought in program history — a full five seasons.

From 1997 to 2016, every senior class at Whitefish High School saw the Bulldogs play in the title match at some point during their four years in school. And every class from 2002-16 watched the team win at least one title during that 14-year stretch. It is the most dominant decade-plus run of success in the history of the sport in this state, and Whitefish has won more titles (five) and played in more title matches (10) than any Montana school since 1991, when the MHSA first sanctioned boys and girls soccer.

So when the Bulldogs boys failed to reach the state championship match in four straight campaigns, lost their magnetic head coach, O’Brien Byrd, midway through that stretch, and saw participation numbers drop so low that they could not field both a full varsity and junior varsity roster, it appeared that the Bulldogs’ days of running roughshod over their rivals were coming to an end.

Then a funny thing happened last fall. Plucky Whitefish, the second seed from the Northern A conference, won a shootout against Laurel in the state quarterfinals and knocked off Southern A conference champion Frenchtown in the semis. Suddenly, the Bulldogs were playing for a state title once again and all was well in Stumptown.

Except, that is, for the match itself. The Bulldogs surrendered four second-half goals on the road in Belgrade and watched the Panthers celebrate a second consecutive state crown.

The good news in Whitefish, though, is that most of the boys who watched or played in that state championship match are still roaming the halls of the high school, a building that offers each of them a daily reminder of just how close they came to adding their stamp to the school’s soccer tradition.

“Oh, I think they do know (the tradition),” Head Coach John Lacey said. “They walk by the trophy case.”

Whitefish soccer practice on Aug. 23, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish won back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012, the crowning moments in Byrd’s sensational 12-year tenure as head coach, and won conference titles in each of the next two seasons. But when Byrd left to take over at his alma mater, Columbia Falls, the Bulldogs quickly fell on hard times.

In 2015, Lacey’s first year as head coach, he had just 21 players show up for his team, and, as Whitefish’s football team rolled to a state title, the Bulldogs soccer team slumped badly, missing the state playoffs altogether. The low numbers, however, did allow Lacey to try something new. He spent the year training the entire program together rather than the typical split between varsity and junior varsity practices, and while numbers have climbed once more since that season — there are 31 players on the Whitefish roster this fall — Lacey has not changed his tactic, using his assistants to command a single combined practice with his throughout the fall. That method has given Whitefish’s youngest players significant experience against older competition and, as it turns out, the chance to earn significant varsity playing time early in their careers.

“It’s really now a function of the ability of the players,” Lacey said. “They come in and they’re ready to train … It’s kind of fed itself.”

The 2017 season provided the best example yet of how seasoning younger players in practice can pay off later in the year. Last year’s Bulldogs were already young and banged up, and in the days leading up to the championship match they would learn two of their best midfielders would be unavailable as well: Sam Menicke picked up a red card in the state semifinals and was suspended, while Xander Burger suffered a head injury the day before the match. So in the team’s biggest outing of the year, Whitefish trotted out a lineup that included seven freshmen and sophomores.

“I think the experience is great, the extra game itself is great,” Lacey said of last year’s title match. “But I think what happened to us in that state final is we played it with, essentially, two hands behind our back because we were missing players.”

The teams were deadlocked at halftime, but Belgrade took control as the second half began, and its four-goal outburst was more than enough to quell the Bulldogs. All-conference forward Casey Schneider, who started that state title match as a sophomore, says the experience will be invaluable this year.

“It was frustrating but it’s motivating,” Schneider said. “We want more than that, obviously, but we can definitely build from such a cool run to the state final.”

Schneider is one of seven juniors on this year’s roster and is coming off a 12-goal season, tops among all Whitefish returners. All-state midfielders Burger and Menicke are back and healthy, too, as is second-team all-conference defender Joseph Houston. And the Bulldogs are still young with just three seniors and a bevy of talented freshmen who could see significant action right away.

“I mean, we have a good squad this year,” Burger said. “Age doesn’t mean a lot; I think talent means more.”

Of course, a combination of age and talent is even better, and that’s why the Bulldogs program is in the title conversation once again, battling with teams like Belgrade and Corvallis — who met in three straight finals from 2014-16 and have risen to the top of the heap in Class A in Whitefish’s absence — for state supremacy.

The Bulldogs began this season on Aug. 28 against conference rival Bigfork and return to the pitch Aug. 31 at Smith Fields against a familiar foe, the Belgrade Panthers.

That match should be a great litmus test for the young Bulldogs, and a win over the Panthers would have Whitefish fans of all ages dreaming of adding another trophy to the collection. Celebrating on the season’s final day would bring back memories not just for Curran Edland, a senior on that 2012 team who is now an assistant coach, but for Menicke and Schneider, who both watched that season’s title match at Smith Fields. Schneider, in fact, was the team’s ball boy.

“Bulldog soccer’s always had a really strong program; I always came and watched the games when I was a kid, and it always made me want to be on that field,” Menicke said. “O’Brien Byrd … he made the program really strong and he made kids from Whitefish really want to play soccer. That’s how I got into it.”

Lacey, too, knows Whitefish’s soccer history well. He was an assistant coach even before Byrd’s arrival, from 2000-02, reaching two state title matches and winning one, in 2002.

“They do know what Bulldog soccer is,” Lacey said of his young team. “And I think they’re hungry to add their piece to it.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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