Winter Prep Sports Preview

A pair of defending champions are still loaded for title defenses while a handful of other prominent Flathead Valley programs reload with new faces

By Andy Viano
Bigfork's Colton Reichenbach celebrates a first-quarter basket during last season's Class B state championship game in Missoula. The Vikings won their second straight state title with a 47-43 win over Missoula Loyola on Friday. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Sam Tudor won his first state championship as a head coach last season when his 24-0 Bigfork Vikings cut down the nets in Missoula with the Class B title in hand, but guiding an undefeated defending champ through a quest to repeat is nothing new.

Tudor’s first year in charge was 2014, the season after Bigfork went 26-0 and won it all under former coach Josh Downey, and while that team saw its dream of back-to-back titles dashed in the state semifinals, the experience of going through a season with a target on his team’s back could prove helpful for a squad that figures to get the stiffest possible challenge from every opponent on the schedule.

“I think we’ve seen just about every game plan, and people know we’re formidable as the defending champs,” Tudor said. “With this team, we’ve just agreed that our goal is to improve and with that will come success. If we can be better than we were last year, the wins will come.”

Meanwhile, on the wrestling mat, Flathead’s Jeff Thompson also enters the year in a familiar place. In the third season of his second stint as the Braves’ head coach, Thompson commands a program that has won each of the last two Class AA titles and has taken home a remarkable six championships in Thompson’s last seven seasons at the helm (his first stint was from 2000-08). The Braves must absorb the loss of three individual titlists this year, but the cupboard is far from bare with five returning state placers still in the mix.

The rest of the Flathead Valley’s winter sports landscape may be without a defending team champion, but that doesn’t mean it lacks possibilities. Glacier swimmer A.J. Popp took home an individual title last year in and is back to defend her crown, as are a trio of Flathead boys swimmers who helped the Braves to a surprising third-place finish at last year’s state meet.

Outside the pool, the Columbia Falls girls basketball team is chasing a remarkable sixth straight top-three finish in the state, Whitefish’s boys and girls hoops squads both welcome new coaches, and a throng of new varsity players on all four Kalispell basketball teams opens up opportunities for new stars to emerge.

Here’s a closer look at the winter prep sports season in the Flathead Valley, which started in earnest with a full slate of events last weekend.

Glacier head coach Mark Harkins talks to his team during a timeout. Beacon File Photo

Boys Basketball

Bigfork begins the season as the presumptive favorite to repeat as state champions, but the Vikings have, literally, one very big hole to fill. Beau Santistevan, the Vikings’ 6-foot-7 all-state center last year, is now at Dawson Community College, although he’s the only starter who is not back off a team that was rarely even tested during a magical 2017-18 campaign.

Senior guard Randy Stultz, who played major minutes off the bench last year, moves into the starting lineup for the Vikings, joining classmates Anders Epperly, Logan Gilliard, and twins Colton and Clayton Reichenbach. What Stultz doesn’t provide in height he makes up for in athleticism, as the three-sport athlete and college baseball commit will only help the Vikings push the tempo under the guidance of Epperly, Bigfork’s point guard and on-court leader. Epperly is on pace to leave school as one of the all-time assist leaders in Montana history but could be asked to shoulder a bit more of the scoring load this season alongside the sweet-shooting Gilliard.

In Class A, Whitefish has a new coach in Scott Smith, and the Bulldogs have already shown major strides, surpassing last season’s win total with an impressive 3-0 start. Whitefish was extremely young a year ago, and brings back all-conference standouts Lee Walburn and Ryan Kemm. In Columbia Falls, third-year coach Chris Finberg must replace four starters from last season and will lean heavily on Drew Morgan and Logan Bechtel, especially early in the season as a new crop of youngsters gets acclimated.

A boatload of new players will also be seeing the floor in Kalispell, where Glacier and Flathead both graduated most of last season’s production. The Wolfpack’s Drew Engellant is the lone all-conference returnee from either school, and he will be joined at Glacier by senior wing Bret Michaels, who missed most of last season with an injury. Football standouts Cole Crosby and Drew Deck have also returned to basketball this year after some time away. At Flathead, all-state stalwarts Tyler Johnson and Sam Elliott are gone, as is point guard Eric Seaman, post Dawson Smith and a pair of key bench contributors, all of whom combined for more than 80 percent of the Braves’ scoring a season ago. Senior Anthony Jones (5.7 points) is Flathead’s top returning scorer.

Columbia Falls Coach Cary Finberg directs his players during the 2017 Class A state championship game. Beacon File Photo

Girls Basketball

Legendary coach Cary Finberg has won state championships and piled up hundreds of wins during a spectacular career coaching at Columbia Falls, but the run his Wildkats girls team has been on the last five seasons is among the most impressive accomplishments of all.

Columbia Falls has come home from the Class A state tournament with a trophy the last five seasons (including a state title in 2017) on the strength of five consecutive years of all-state point guard play, first from his daughter Cydney and, in the last two seasons, from Dani Douglas. This year, sophomore Lakia Hill steps into those big shoes but does so with a sterling athletic pedigree as the daughter of retired rodeo cowboy Beau Hill and his wife, Keri, both of whom were outstanding high school athletes. The Wildkats also bring back all-conference honorees Ryley Kehr and Trista Cowen and figure to be among the favorites once again in the Northwest A Conference.

Rival Whitefish is breaking in a new coach this year, but like the boys team the Bulldogs are off to an encouraging start after nabbing a pair of wins at the Missoula Tip-Off Tournament last weekend. Bob Bolam, a longtime head coach in Washington, has a young roster this year although Whitefish’s only two seniors, Marlee Bender and Kit Anderson, will lead it.

In Class AA, both Kalispell schools are optimistic after sweeping Great Falls High and C.M. Russell to start the season at home. The Bravettes have senior post Taylor Henley and point guard Sadie Wilson returning to pair with rising youngsters Jenna Johnson and Kuyra Siegel. Across town at Glacier, all-conference star Kali Gulick figures to lead the Wolfpack after averaging nine points and four rebounds as a junior, and classmate Aubrie Rademacher also returns for a team that won a game at the state tournament in 2018.

In Class B, Bigfork will be without star senior Rakiah Grende for at least the first several weeks of the season and, in her absence, will have an extremely young team after graduating two all-state and four-all district players from last year’s 21-win squad.

Flathead High School wrestling coach Jeff Thompson. Beacon File Photo


The 2017-18 Flathead Braves were the kind of team that doesn’t come around very often, loaded with talent at every weight class, including two NCAA Division I wrestlers (one of whom didn’t even wrestle last year due to injury), 15 state placers and enough depth to rank 37th in the final national rankings.

Fast-forward to this season, however, and the Braves have a few questions to answer since Flathead has lost seven state placers to graduation, one more to transfer and another to injury (Garrett Reike). Still, five state placers are back, as are seven other state tournament participants. Chief among those returners is Jaden MacNeil, the state runner-up at 132 pounds last year who is fresh off quarterbacking the Braves to the state title game this football season. Tanner Russell, fourth at 145 pounds last year, is also back and led the way for the Braves at Mining City Duals, Dec. 7-8. Flathead finished fourth at that event, losing only to Bozeman and Great Falls High among seven dual matches.

At Glacier, the fast-improving Wolfpack also reached the championship bracket at the Mining City Duals after winning their pool, and boast a deep group despite not having a single state placer last season. They do have one on the roster this year, though, in Tilynne Vasquez, who transferred from Flathead. Vasquez was fourth at 103 pounds as a sophomore last year, believed to be the best finish by a girl wrestler in Montana history. The Wolfpack also bring back state qualifiers Tre Krause and Tristan Little, both of whom were third at last year’s Western AA divisional.

Elsewhere, Columbia Falls and Whitefish must contend with regional rival Polson — one of the state title favorites — and the rest of Class A. The Wildcats lost state champion Ben Windauer and three other state placers but do bring back Jakob Freeman (sixth at 205 last year) and Taylor Gladeau (third at heavyweight).

A.J. Popp competes in the 100-yard freestyle during a crosstown swim meet during the 2017-18 season. Beacon File Photo


A new coach will guide the programs in Kalispell this year, with Flathead grad Ethan Timm tabbed to helm both schools’ squads. He inherits a Braves boys team that was third in the state behind a small but gifted roster that must replace its leader, two-time state champion James Bouda, now at the University of Wyoming. In his place, Flathead has returning state placers Jace Reed, Gus DeSouza and Ethan Brosten.

Glacier, meanwhile, will be led by its own state champion in Popp, a senior who recently committed to continue her career at the University of Northern Colorado. In addition to her title in the 200 free last year, Popp was second in the 100 free and is once again joined by speedy teammate Caroline Dye, herself a state placer in three races last season.

In Class A, Whitefish brings back two state placers, too, in junior Preston Ring on the boys side and Annie Sullivan for the girls.


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