The boys soccer teams at Whitefish and Polson high schools have won every single match they’ve played this season.
Except, that is, when they’ve played against each other.
The two best Class A boys soccer teams in the state of Montana will face off for the third time this year on Oct. 27 at Smith Fields in Whitefish with a state championship on the line, the latest chapter in a juicy Northern A conference rivalry dripping with history.
And on the same weekend, more than 200 miles away in Helena, the Flathead High School girls soccer team could be playing for a state title of its own in what would be a match no one saw coming.
The three Northwest Montana teams still on the pitch this fall have all taken different routes to get to where they are, all bring their own unique histories and all, even whoever loses in Whitefish this weekend, will one day look back and celebrate an unforgettable 2018.
Class AA Girls State Tournament
Flathead senior Shayenn Thompson spent a long first three seasons as a Bravette. Under two different head coaches, Flathead went a miserable 4-33-3 in those three years and did not win a regular season match in either 2016 or 2017.
The 2018 season started with another change, as Bledy Doda was hired to lead the program, and, for the third time in four years, Thompson and her senior teammates would learn a new system from another new coach. This one, however, would end up nothing like the others.
Flathead (6-5-2) had already surpassed its win total from the prior three seasons before hosting a state tournament play-in match at Legends Stadium on Oct. 18. Their opponent was defending state champion Helena, a perennial girls soccer powerhouse poised to keep Thompson and her teammates from ever reaching the state tournament.
But it didn’t happen that way.
Thompson scored her team-leading 12th goal only eight minutes into the match and the Bravettes bullied their way to a 4-0 win, landing a spot in the state tournament for the first time since 2014.
“It’s really great,” a beaming Thompson said after the match. “Our team finally brought it all together … It’s hard to say if we knew we were going to state or not (before the year), but we definitely knew we had players and we were capable of playing together.”
Thompson and her younger sister, all-state sophomore forward Skyleigh Thompson, may have been the statistical giants for this year’s team, but some of the credit has to go to the team’s unorthodox first-year head coach. Doda, who was born in Albania and raised in soccer-mad Italy, was hired just weeks before the season started and came into the job with zero high school coaching experience.
“We all love Bledy,” the elder Thompson said. “We have fun at practice but it’s also serious, and we work on something until it’s perfect and then keep working from there.”
To Doda, the difference this year lies as much in his team’s mentality as it does with any tactical decisions he’s made.
“You know, losing is part of the game,” Doda said after the win against Helena. “You lose once, but you’re not going to think you’re going to lose next time. So that’s probably what I brought into this team and changed: that none of the other teams are better than us.
The Bravettes will face an uphill climb in Helena at the double-elimination state tournament, beginning Thursday, Oct. 25 when they take on Billings Skyview (12-0-0), the state’s only undefeated team. The Falcons have allowed just three goals all season and have won their last eight matches by a combined 40-1. The winner will get either Billings West or Missoula Hellgate in the semifinals, while the loser moves into the consolation bracket.
While it may be tough to imagine the Bravettes finding a way to advance against Skyview, a win would be no less likely than predicting six wins and a state tournament berth for this Flathead team three months ago.
“We step on the pitch and we believe,” Doda said. “We are a new staff and new coaches and new players, so let’s do something new.”
Class A State Championship Match
The Whitefish Bulldogs are the most storied program in Montana soccer’s 27-year history. Entering the season, Whitefish had played in more championship matches (10) and won more titles (five) than any school in the state, and Saturday will mark the second year in a row the Bulldogs will compete for the crown. Expectations entering the year were enormous in and around the program, and to this point the season has been no disappointment. Whitefish (13-0-1) is the highest scoring side in the state (5.0 goals per match), has allowed a total of nine goals the entire year and has earned the right to host all three of their postseason matches.
Polson, meanwhile, has been nipping at the Bulldogs’ heels throughout 2018 and, frankly, a few years longer than that. The Pirates (13-1-1) have reached the Class A state championship match just twice in their history, losing in both 2002 and 2011 to, you guessed it, Whitefish.
“If there’s any team we know really well, it’s Whitefish,” Polson Head Coach Adam Fansher said. “Even in the club season these guys play against each other … I don’t know if there are going to be too many surprises.”
Fansher and his Whitefish counterpart, John Lacey, were both hired prior to the 2015 season and both are chasing their first titles as head coaches, although Lacey was an assistant with that 2002 Whitefish team that knocked off Polson. This year, the teams met twice in the regular season with very different results.
Both sides came into their first matchup, Sept. 22 in Whitefish, with unbeaten records, but the Bulldogs ran away with that one, routing the Pirates 5-0. Two weeks later, Oct. 4 in Polson, they played to a 3-3 draw, the only blemish on Whitefish’s season to this point.
“We’re a different team from that 5-0 game in Whitefish,” Fansher said. “Frankly, I’m glad that happened, because it showed us how much improvement we needed to make. I don’t think we beat Belgrade (in the state semifinals) if that hadn’t happened.”
Last weekend’s semifinals were a redux of the 2017 season, except Polson avenged its 2-0 loss a year ago with a 1-0 victory in Belgrade. For Whitefish, meanwhile, a 1-0 home win against Frenchtown felt a whole lot different than last year’s 3-1 triumph on the road.
“I’m looking forward to turning the page,” Lacey said. “Because the best part about (last) Saturday is that we got out of it.”
The Bulldogs were pressured from the start by an aggressive Broncs team, and needed some timely saves by keeper Colter Upton and a perfectly placed second-half strike from leading scorer Casey Schneider to escape. The win moved Whitefish into the match it’s been focused on all year, a chance to wipe away last year’s 4-0 loss to Belgrade in a title tilt that saw the Bulldogs start seven freshmen and sophomores.
That returning experience would figure to give Whitefish a bit of an edge, but the Bulldogs still boast a relatively youthful roster with just three seniors. Polson, meanwhile, is led by a pair of spectacular seniors in Mack Moderie, the leading scorer in Class A with 27 goals and eight assists, and Robin Erickson (15 goals, eight assists) who can go goal-for-goal with Whitefish’s high-scoring trio of senior Xander Burger (12 goals, three assists), and juniors Sam Menicke (10 goals, three assists) and Schneider (17 goals, 11 assists).
The two coaches do not expect many surprises from the other side in the title match, which is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“We know them and they know us, and it’s going to take each team’s best effort to beat the other,” Lacey said. “We’ve played them a lot over the last few years, and I think it helps to know some of their tendencies. And it helps, in this case, to know that if we don’t play well they can exploit us.”
Regardless of the outcome Saturday, the Northern A conference will be taking home another state title, something the league has done an astonishing 10 times in just 17 years of Class A soccer. This year’s match will also be the sixth time two Northern A schools have faced each other with a state championship on the line.
“The best part about it is it’s a testament to soccer up here in the north,” Lacey said. “I’m excited that somebody from our conference is going to win; I hope it’s going to be us.”