2018 Sports Year in Review

A Whitefish native in the Olympics, a Bigfork horse in the Kentucky Derby and a bushel of champions marked an unforgettable year in Flathead Valley sports

By Andy Viano
Maggie Voisin. Beacon file photo

Maggie Voisin Finishes Fourth in PyeonChang

Four years after her Olympic dream was dashed at the last minute, Whitefish’s Maggie Voisin finally got her chance to ski with the entire world watching at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeonChang, South Korea in February.

Voisin, 19 and one of the top-rated women’s slopestyle skiers in the world, snuck into the finals of the Olympic competition as the 12th and final qualifier but turned her day around with a strong run in the medal round. She was briefly in bronze medal position after posting a score of 81.20 on her final trip, but Great Britain’s Isabel Atkin bumped her moments later with a 84.60 score.

Voisin was the youngest member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team but was injured in a training run in Sochi, Russia and could not compete. Four years later, she qualified once again for the Olympic squad and also became the first American woman to win gold in slopestyle skiing at the X Games.

Voisin received a hero’s welcome upon returning to Whitefish from South Korea. The town hosted a parade in her honor and Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld proclaimed March 7, 2018 “Maggie Voisin Day.”

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Bolt d’Oro Runs in Kentucky Derby

On a soggy track at Churchill Downs, Bigfork-bred colt Bolt d’Oro stayed with the lead pack until the final stretch at the 144th Kentucky Derby on May 5, completing a long climb for the 3-year-old horse owned and trained by Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis.

Two-year-old Justify won the Kentucky Derby en route to claiming the Triple Crown, but at Churchill Downs he was tested by a strong field that included Bolt d’Oro, who entered the weekend as one of the betting line favorites. But after starting strong, Bolt d’Oro struggled down the stretch and crossed the finish line in 12th, 24 1/2 lengths off the lead.

Bolt d’Oro spent his early years at Ruis Ranch in Bigfork, working closely with trainer and Flathead High School graduate Ike Green, before moving to Santa Anita Park in California. In 2017, Bolt d’Oro turned heads in the racing world by winning the Frontrunner Stakes at Santa Anita, and he followed that effort up with a second-place finish to Justify at the Santa Anita Derby in April.

Ruis decided not to enter Bolt d’Oro in the final two legs of the Triple Crown, and the horse is expected to retire and head to stud in 2019.

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Flathead Wrestlers Go Back-to-Back

Three seniors — Tucker Nadeau, Payton Hume and Michael Lee — won individual championships and Flathead’s storied wrestling program put together one of its greatest seasons ever, winning the Class AA state championship in dominating fashion and finishing 2017-18 ranked 37th in the country.

And while the state titlists stole headlines, it was Flathead’s depth that ultimately made the biggest difference. Braves wrestlers went undefeated in the so-called “blood round,” guaranteeing top-six finishes and the team points that come with them for each grappler. In the end, Flathead had 15 wrestlers place in the top six at their respective weight class and posted 288 points, well ahead of second-place Bozeman (222).

Jeff Thompson, Flathead’s head coach, has now won six state titles in his last seven years at the helm of the program, including both years since he returned to the job in 2016.

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Bigfork Basketball Posts Perfect Season

The little town by the lake has been churning out basketball talent in recent years, and the 2017-18 Vikings etched their name in the record books with a state championship-winning 24-0 season, capped by a thrilling 60-56 win over Shelby in Missoula in the Class B title game.

During a five-year stretch from 2013-18, Bigfork played in the state title game three times, won it twice (the first in 2014) and posted a jaw-dropping 119-12 record. Bigfork’s basketball renaissance began under former coach and Whitefish High School grad Kurt Paulson, who led the Vikings from 2011-13, and Paulson himself had a big 2018, landing the head-coaching job at Carroll College.

In the 2018 state title game, Bigfork led from start to finish against the Coyotes, although they did not put the game away until the closing seconds. Senior big man Beau Santistevan scored 18 points to lead the Vikings to victory before moving on to Dawson Community College, while the rest of Bigfork’s core — including all-state stars Anders Epperly and Logan Gilliard — remains intact for another run at glory in 2019.

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Libby Golf Phenom Completes Historic Run

Libby High School senior Ryggs Johnston’s high school golf career ended just the way it started — with a state championship.

One of the most decorated athletes, regardless of sport, to come out of Northwest Montana in the last decade, Johnston won a fourth consecutive state championship at Hamilton Golf Club in late September. Johnston leaves prep golf behind as the Class A, Class B and all-class record holder for lowest score at the state tournament, and added a few other notable lines to his resume in 2018.

In July, Johnston fired the lowest round in the history of the Montana State Amateur Tournament, carding an 8-under-par 62 in the second round. One month later, he was invited to compete at the U.S. Amateur — the country’s most prestigious amateur tournament — for a second time and will attend Arizona State University on a golf scholarship in the fall.

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Ben Perrin’s Perfect Year

The youngest of three brothers, Ben Perrin joined Zach and Jake as Class AA state cross country champions with an unblemished fall.

Perrin won all eight Montana High School Association races he entered in 2018 and outpaced a pair of Glacier runners at the state meet in Missoula, completing the 5K course in 15:43.60. Both of Perrin’s brothers earned Division I scholarships as a distance runners, Zach at the University of Colorado and Jake at Gonzaga, and Ben expects to join them when he announces his next stop in 2019.

Wolfpack junior Simon Hill was second at the state meet and is poised to follow his own family tradition as the brother of two-time state champion Annie Hill, who is now at the University of Colorado. Glacier’s Aren Alexander-Battee, a senior, was third at the state meet.

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Whitefish Soccer Reclaims Top Spot

The most storied program in Montana soccer made its way back to the top of the mountain in Class A, completing an undefeated season with a state championship in October.

The Bulldogs went 14-0-1 one season after finishing as the state runner-up and won the 2018 title, 6-2 at home against Polson, on the strength of an unprecedented five-goal explosion from senior Xander Burger. The title is Whitefish’s sixth all-time — more than any other Montana high school — and first since 2012.

And 2019 could be more of the same for the Bulldogs, who return every starter outside of Burger, including all-state standouts Joshua Gunderson, Joseph Houston, Sam Menicke and Casey Schneider.

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Glacier Twins Win Everything

It took a little while for the Glacier Twins to get rolling in 2018, but once they did, the Whitefish-based American Legion baseball team stopped for almost nothing.

The Twins won 25 consecutive games, a streak that spanned 37 days and included championships at the district and state level, during a remarkable late-season surge. The streak was finally stopped at the Northwest Regional tournament, but the Twins recovered to win that title, too, and finish the season with a 42-16 record.

Glacier was carried by a tremendous offense in 2018, batting .372 as a team and averaging 8.8 runs per game. Five Twins hit better than .375 for the season, including Coby Clark-Dickinson (.463), Terek Bistodeau (.433), Ryan Veneman (.425) Tom Hellwig (.382) and Jack Schwaiger (.379).

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Glacier Boys, Bigfork Girls Win Track Championships

Northwest Montana has long been known for distance running, and 2018 was no different, but in the spring it was a group of sprinters who helped Glacier High School do something it had never done before.

The Wolfpack won the Class AA boys state track and field championship for the first time on the strength of a dramatic javelin title for Evan Todd, triple jump win for Mark Estes, and a quartet of sprinters who racked up points in a number of events. Ethan Larson (2nd in the 100 meters, 3rd in 200, 4th in 400), Drew Turner (4th in 100, 2nd in 200, 1st in 400), Drew Deck (3rd in 300 hurdles) and Estes (5th in 400) all ran wild, and when they ran together in the 400-meter relay, they won the race comfortably and just missed a state record.

When the dust settled, Glacier had won the state championship by a wide margin (31 points) over their crosstown rivals from Flathead.

Bigfork’s girls, meanwhile, were similarly unchallenged. The Valkyries won the Class B state title for the second year in a row behind sensational seniors Bryn Morley and Haile Norred, who won a combined eight individual and relay titles. The title gave legendary coach Sue Loeffler an even 10 in her 44-year coaching career. Loeffler retired as a teacher and as Bigfork’s cross country coach after the 2018 school year but will continue with the track and field program in the spring of 2019.

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Flathead Football Makes History, Falls Just Short of Glory

 Flathead football has not had a season like 2018 in nearly two decades, but the triumph of the season did little, at least in the moment, to dull the pain of a gut-wrenching 20-14 loss to Billings West in the Class AA state championship game.

The Braves (9-4) were staring at the end zone — and the lead — from just eight yards away in the closing minutes but failed to reach paydirt on any of the next four plays, and the Golden Bears ran out the clock on the ensuing possession.

Still, Flathead’s 2018 will be remembered as the climax, to this point, of head coach Kyle Samson’s five-year rebuilding project. Samson has had the Braves in the state playoffs more often than not, and Flathead went on a storybook run this fall, beating Billings Senior in the opening round for their first playoff win in more than 10 years, then upsetting previously undefeated Bozeman in the semifinals to reach the title game for the first time since 2000.

After the season, 18 Braves earned all-state accolades and senior running back Blake Counts was named the co-Most Valuable Player in Class AA. Counts broke former NFL rusher Lex Hilliard’s single-season school rushing record in 2018 and went on to break the all-class single-season rushing record with 2,588 yards in 13 games.

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Columbia Falls Powerlifter Wins National Championship

Sylvester Vermillion, a 44-year-old father of two who makes his home in Columbia Falls, won a pair of gold medals at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.

Vermillion only began competing as a Special Olympian in 2014 and the former furniture mover quickly found he had a knack for the sport. Vermillion won gold in Seattle in the deadlift and triple combination, and was a silver medalist in the bench press and squat.

Later in the summer, Vermillion learned he had been selected to represent his country at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.

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Makena Morley Ends Career as a Champion

 Bigfork native Makena Morley finished eighth in the nation at the NCAA Division I cross country championships in Madison, Wisconsin, a performance that helped the University of Colorado win the national championship for the first time since 2004.

Morley was the second-highest Buffaloes finisher, behind only race champion Dani Jones. The performance earned Morley All-American accolades in her fourth and final appearance at the nation’s ultimate collegiate race.

In high school, Morley won four consecutive Class B state cross country titles for the Valkyries and originally attended the University of Montana. She transferred after one season and still has two remaining years of eligibility for the Colorado track and field team.

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