Roar of the Wildkats

Columbia Falls’ Josie Windauer is in the midst what should be a record-breaking season, and her team is on its way to what could be the school’s first state title in 15 years

By Andy Viano
Josie Windauer of Columbia Falls makes a beeline for the net during in a match against Whitefish at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 1, 2019. Columbia Falls beat Whitefish 3-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Josie Windauer is lurking near the midfield line.

The senior forward at Columbia Falls High School has a Whitefish defender by her side, and another one, two or three in the vicinity, their eyes never veering far from the 5-foot-9 Wildkat in their midst.

Whitefish will possess the ball most of the match on Oct. 1 in Columbia Falls, with Wildkat midfielders and defenders packing inside their own zone to keep dangerous Bulldogs strikers at bay, and they will shut out the Bulldogs despite the possession disadvantage. Windauer, meanwhile, is stationed near midfield, casting an imposing physical shadow — she is a daily visitor to the weight room — but appearing otherwise unassuming without the ball at her feet.

When the Wildkats secure a possession, the offense slides forward without much resistance. Midfielders are granted acres of green grass in front of and around them, giving them ample time to survey the landscape. All the while, Windauer prowls the middle of the field and sizes up her prey. Any time a pass reaches her feet, the large Whitefish contingent in the stands holds its collective breath. Later in the match, with the final outcome no longer in doubt, the loudest Whitefish cheer of the night will come when Windauer has the ball stolen by a Bulldogs defender.

Windauer can be electrifying on the ball, but on this night she is mostly a ruthless, clinical destroyer of defenses. Three times against the Bulldogs, she will corral a pass, shield the ball with her body, employ a clean, quick, well-practiced move to either muscle through or burst around the back line, and scorch a shot into the back of the net.

What she can do on the soccer field, her coach says, will “strike fear into your soul.”

Josie Windauer right, of Columbia Falls celebrates with teammate Sydney Mann after Windauer’s opening goal during a match against Whitefish at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 1, 2019. Columbia Falls beat Whitefish 3-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The 3-0 win on Oct. 1 gave the Wildkats a rare season sweep of their archrivals and all but clinched the Northern A conference title, something they would do with a win over Polson two days later. Through 10 games this season, the Wildkats are 9-1-0 (6-0-0 in the Northern A), and Columbia Falls has all the makings of a team that could break through and end a decade of dominance in Class A girls soccer by a pair of schools out east.

This is far more than a one-woman team, too, with all-state talent at all three levels, but Windauer is where all the attention goes. And teams still struggle to stop her.

“I would make her have to beat four or five (defenders),” first-year Columbia Falls head coach Thomas Clark said, imagining how he would slow down his superstar striker. “In most cases, teams have asked other players to beat them and not let Josie beat them. And Josie still beats them.”

There are almost no weaknesses in Windauer’s game. She is a terrific natural athlete, with a quick, explosive burst and all-state track speed, and her strength is unrivaled by almost any other prep athlete, regardless of sport. She is a hard-working, well-practiced dribbler who knows the game well, and her finishing ability is otherworldly.

“It’s really ludicrous when we’re doing our finishing drills in pregame,” Clark said. “She just strikes it with power and precision that I haven’t really seen at this level.”

Windauer had 26 goals this season as of Oct. 7, just four shy of the single-season school record set by Danielle Delventhal in 2011. With regular-season matches remaining against conference bottom-dwellers Bigfork and Libby, along with at least one state playoff match, Windauer is on pace to break Delventhal’s mark and is even within shouting distance of the all-state single-season record of 37. Windauer has 75 career goals, seventh-most in state history, even after missing most of her freshman year with an injury.

It is no surprise, then, that when University of Montana soccer coach Chris Citowicki saw Windauer at a camp in Missoula last year he quickly offered a scholarship. Windauer accepted and will become the first Columbia Falls graduate to play Division I soccer when she suits up for the Griz next fall, and the first Flathead Valley girls soccer player to earn a Division I scholarship since Flathead’s Tess Brenneman (Montana) in 2012.

Windauer, like Brenneman was, is a three-sport athlete who has excelled in each one. She was a second team all-conference basketball player as a junior and she has been part of two all-state 4×400 relay teams, narrowly missing another all-state finish in the 400 last season.

Josie Windauer of Columbia Falls listens to her coach at halftime of a match against Whitefish at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 1, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Despite all of her athletic success, Windauer says she was a shy child who “was not into sports, at all,” before her parents coerced her to give them a shot. She joined her first travel soccer team in sixth grade and has made tremendous strides as a player despite, or maybe because of, her split responsibilities during the school year.

“(My parents) said that in the small time you have each season, do whatever you can to get better,” Windauer said. “It helps me take a break from certain sports and use other parts of your body … and it helps me get my mind off the other sports.”

Windauer’s heart, though, has always been with soccer. She said she “feels free” when playing the so-called beautiful game, and even before she enjoys her likely place atop the Columbia Falls record books she is hoping to help her team end one of the more remarkable stretches of dominance in Montana prep sports. Starting in 2008, every Class A state championship in girls soccer has been won by either Laurel (twice) or Billings Central (nine times), and each of the last four years the championship matchup has been the same — Laurel vs. Billings Central.

Columbia Falls made a road trip earlier this year to play both of the state’s bellwethers and came back home with a split, beating Laurel 2-1 and falling 3-1 to Billings Central. Both teams employed second-half defenses specifically designed to slow or stop Windauer, but she scored all three Wildkats goals on that trip anyway. Moreover, Windauer believes she and her teammates learned from both matches in a way that could help them down the road.

“We’re the most athletic team in the state,” she said. “We played the two teams that are probably the hardest teams that we’re going to play all year and we held our own. There are things that we noticed about them that we (can) practice so we’re ready for them the next time.”

Windauer is certain to see all kinds of attention and unique schemes designed to stop her come the state tournament, which begins later this month, but whatever adjustments the opposition makes to stop her have a positive counter-effect on the rest of the Wildkats. Columbia Falls already has a talented back line, anchored by all-state senior Flora Jarvis, and young wings and midfielders like freshman Sydney Mann, and sophomores Maddie Robison and Cheyanne Johnston-Heinz have ample opportunity and ability to create scoring chances, with or without Windauer.

Clark, who was an assistant coach in Columbia Falls in 2017 and 2018, knows just how unique of a roster he inherited and the kind of opportunity that is in front of this team.

“We have an unbelievable culture,” he said. “This is my first year head coaching and I can already tell that it’s not always going to be like this.”

Windauer, too, is spending her last month with her Wildkat teammates appreciating the chance they have to leave a legacy beyond just individual records.

“I want to win state and that’s my first goal. I want to help my team get there,” she said. “We have a special team.”

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