The busiest season on the high school sports calendar gets the school year started, and while many eyes drift to the gridiron, the Flathead Valley’s volleyball, soccer, cross country and golf teams are roaring into action with high expectations and a chance to end the season with a litany of trophies.
In 2018, Whitefish’s boys soccer team and the Columbia Falls boys cross country team both claimed team titles, and each one is well-stocked for a repeat. Meanwhile, two local golfers are among the favorites to win titles, the next generation of Flathead Valley distance runners could produce a champion or two as well, and the region’s traditionally strong volleyball teams should be right back in contention.
Here’s a sport-by-sport breakdown of the fall sports season (non-football category) as the 2019-20 academic year gets underway.
Glacier High School missed the Class AA state volleyball tournament for just the second time in the last nine years in 2018, but with a young core returning mostly intact the Wolfpack are unlikely to fall short again.
Coach Christy Harkins’ program has been one of the most consistent at the school since Glacier opened in the fall of 2007, making the state tournament for the first time in 2008 and notching five straight tourney berths from 2010-14, a stretch that included three conference titles. The Wolfpack took home the program’s second third-place trophy in 2016, but the last two years have seen the team go through a bit of a rebuilding phase. The 2017 squad was swept out of the state tournament and the 2018 team saw its season come to an end at the hands of crosstown rival Flathead in a state play-in match.
The 2019 Wolfpack, however, find themselves in a much more auspicious place than their conference rival. While the Bravettes must replace five seniors, including all-state middle Taylor Henley, Glacier brings back all-conference picks Aubrie Rademacher, Kaylee Fritz and Kacey Hill. Flathead does, however, return arguably its best player from last season, all-state outside hitter Julia Burden, and coach Nicole Fairclough had the Bravettes one win away from a trophy last year in just her second season at the helm.
In Class A, Whitefish and Columbia Falls are both looking to build off of state tournament berths last season. The Bulldogs, in fact, have reached the last four Class A state tourneys, while the Wildkats are still just three years removed from back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016. Columbia Falls returns all-conference standouts Hannah Schweikert and Angellica Street, while Whitefish has a lone all-conference returnee in senior Kaiah Moore.
Bigfork is breaking in a new head coach this year after Schuyler Tudor stepped down at the end of last season. The Valkyries will be led by Ariel Stallknecht in 2019 as they try to secure a trip to the state tournament for the first time since 2005, when Bigfork was playing in Class A.
Columbia Falls cruised to the Class A state championship one year ago and, remarkably, could be leaps and bounds better this season. The Wildcats’ top four finishers are all back, and coach Jim Peacock believes this year’s team is deeper that the one that ran away from the field last season.
Senior Joe Lamb leads the way, coming off a third-place finish at the state meet and is certainly in the running to become a state champion, especially with defending champ Levi Taylor of Laurel now at Montana State. Lewistown’s Sam Fulbright is back, however, and finished 13 seconds ahead of Lamb a year ago, but the Columbia Falls runner has the benefit of training every day with a trio of all-state caliber juniors. Seth Umbriaco finished right behind Lamb in fourth last season, and James Role (11th) and Aidan Jarvis (20th) have been pushing each other in the lead-up to the 2019 season.
The Columbia Falls girls were sixth in the state in 2018 and Peacock believes they, too, could be in contention by the end of the season. Junior Lara Erickson was in the top five after two miles at state last year before fading late and finishing 20th, and the team has a quartet of dynamic youngsters in freshmen Siri Erickson and Courtney Hoerner, and sophomores Azlyn Caldwell and Hannah Semph, all of whom will contend for varsity positions. The Wildkats will also get an emotional boost from Kimberly Peacock, the former all-state runner who has returned to the team this fall, two years after being diagnosed with leukemia.
In Kalispell, Flathead and Glacier both have runners who could contend for titles. Wolfpack senior Simon Hill, the younger brother of former state champion Annie Hill, was second behind Ben Perrin at last year’s state meet and the only underclassman in the top four, and Flathead juniors Tori Noland-Gillespie (13th last year) and Hannah Perrin (39th) could contend for all-state spots on the girls side.
Other names to watch this season include Whitefish’s Jessica Henson, Josephine Vardell and Erin Wilde (the Bulldogs girls were second in the state last year), along with Miles Vrentas on the boys side. Bigfork graduated its lone all-state finisher but the Vals are just four years removed from their most recent state title.
On paper, at least, the Whitefish boys are as strong of a favorite to win a state title as any team in any sport. The Bulldogs, who were undefeated state champs last season, return 10 of 11 starters from that squad and have a seemingly endless pipeline of youngsters to provide ample depth.
Now-graduated midfielder Xander Burger scored a state-record five goals in Whitefish’s memorable title-match victory, but he was far from the only offensive weapon for the goal-happy Bulldogs. Senior Casey Schneider (18 goals, 13 assists last season) is the leading returning scorer in the state, and 20-plus point scorers Sam Menicke and Ian Lacey are back as well. The defense includes 2018 all-state picks Joshua Gunderson and Joseph Houston, and Whitefish also has two starting-caliber keepers in Colter Upton and Bradlee Anderson.
The Bulldogs beat Polson for the title in 2018, and this year the competition should be just as tough in the Northern A. While Polson must replace a large chunk of last year’s team, Columbia Falls could prove to be a stern test for their north valley rivals behind all-state keeper Story Stemborski. Polson bounced the Cats from last year’s state tournament in penalty kicks.
The Columbia Falls girls, meanwhile, are in the running for a state championship of their own behind one of the state’s most electrifying players in senior Josie Windauer. Coming off a 28-goal junior season, Windauer has plenty of help, too, including all-state sophomore Maddie Robison, midfielder LaKia Hill and defender Flora Jarvis also returns. Like the Wildkats, Whitefish was a state tournament team last year, and the Bulldogs should be formidable once more behind their own all-state trio of Anna Akey, Grace Benkelman and Anna Cook.
Class AA will roll out a new state tournament format this fall, ditching the season-ending neutral site weekend tourney for matches at host sites, similar to Class A. That’s not unwelcome news for the two Kalispell schools, who sent just the Flathead girls to the eight-team Class AA tournament a season ago. The Bravettes will look to make noise once again behind dynamic all-state scorer Skyleigh Thompson, while the Flathead boys, who just missed last year’s tournament, have their sights set higher in year two under Zach Brenneman. At Glacier, a pair of very young Wolfpack teams have another year of seasoning under their belts as they aim to climb the standings.
Glacier’s Tom Mann and Whitefish’s Coral Schulz both won state championships in 2015, and while no Flathead Valley golfer has claimed the state’s top prize since, there are two juniors who could break that streak this year.
Whitefish’s Cameron Kahle trailed only four-time champion Ryggs Johnston at last year’s Class A state tournament, and with the former Libby Logger now at Arizona State, Kahle has a state title in his sights. His dad (and Whitefish coach) Bill Kahle said Cameron is “thinking his way around the course” more this season and shows uncommon maturity, a trait that comes in handy in the pressure-packed world of tournament golf.
Kahle is not the only Whitefish golfer who could end up near the top of the state at the end of the year, either. The Bulldogs have a chance to take home a team trophy behind a deep lineup that includes freshman John Nix, senior Andrew Brozek and sophomore Bjorn Olsen.
The Bulldogs girls did win a team trophy last year, finishing second, and Whitefish’s top two finishers, Ella Shaw (3rd) and Megan Archibald (7th) are back for their senior seasons.
In Class AA, Flathead junior Marcella Mercer has placed in the top nine in the state each of her first two seasons, climbing to fifth place a year ago, just six strokes behind eventual state champion Annika Danenhauer of Bozeman, who is now at Montana State. On the boys side, Glacier freshman Tyler Avery could make noise as well, coming off a second-place finish in Missoula at the first tournament of his prep career.