Sports

Worst to First

Glacier’s girls soccer team brought back almost the exact same roster as a year ago, but the results could not have been more different

When times are tough, coaches need to get creative. So with his team in the midst of a difficult 2018 season, Glacier High School Girls Soccer Coach Brenden Byrd spent much of his practice time on “team-building” activities instead of hammering away at the X’s and O’s.

This year, no such distractions have been needed.

The Wolfpack (9-4-1 as of Oct. 21) won the Western AA conference championship for the first time in program history, clinching the title with a 3-1 win over defending champ Missoula Big Sky on Oct. 15, and Glacier entered the postseason as the top seed and with home-field advantage throughout the new-look Class AA state tournament, which begins on Saturday, Oct. 26.

“Partway through the season, no one asked me about team building or the pumpkin patch,” Byrd said. “They were so focused on always being at practice … Every time I came with a new practice plan, they were bug eyes on you, saying, ‘What am I learning now?’”

Glacier finished the regular season 2-9-1 a year ago, seventh in what was then a seven-team Western AA, but the Wolfpack did bring back every single goal and assist from that 2018 roster. Those players came into 2019 determined to not only change their fortunes on the field, but their mindset off of it as well.

“We had a huge attitude shift,” senior midfielder Micah Hickethier said. “We had a lot of positive energy coming into this year versus the past years. We came into this season optimistic and ready to have a good time rather than drilling into the ground.”

The close-knit team started to coalesce over the summer, when they trained in the early morning hours four times a week and earned positive results in scrimmages against other local schools. Glacier opened the regular season with a 1-1 tie against Missoula Hellgate and a 3-2 win over Flathead, and their confidence received another jolt in mid-September when they swept the two Helena schools at home. Glacier began the year 6-0-1, and although they faltered a bit in the second half they were able to clinch first place by beating Big Sky, the defending conference champions, for a second time in the regular season’s penultimate match.

“I think we earned it,” senior keeper Sophie Smith said. “We put in so much work this summer and as seniors we’ve put in work the past four years. It finally culminated here for us.”

Glacier keeper Sophie Smith blocks a shot during a practice at Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Oct. 17, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

This year’s Wolfpack team is built on defense, allowing just 13 goals in 14 conference matches and posting five shutouts. Smith anchors the back line in her first season as the full-time starter in goal after she and Ellie Keller split reps a year ago. Keller, now a junior, went to Byrd in the offseason and asked to play in the field, a decision that Smith used as motivation.

“Sophie took that as, ‘I have to be the best keeper out there,’” Byrd said. “She’s been spectacular.”

On the other end of the pitch, junior striker Madison Becker has taken big strides forward and become one of the most dangerous finishers in the state. Becker has 13 goals this year, two more than in her first two seasons combined, and her 31 points are third most in Western AA. The undersized Becker is Glacier’s most dynamic scorer since another short-in-stature striker, 2017 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year Cadie Williams, and when Williams visited a Glacier practice earlier this year she shared a bit of wisdom with her former teammate.

“It was amazing and a proud moment for a coach to see (Williams) sit down with your current striker and be, like, ‘Here’s how you beat my records,’” Byrd said.

Hickethier may not have the numbers to match her teammates, but Byrd calls the two-year captain “one of the top midfielders in the state,” and her contribution to the team’s shift in mindset has been immeasurable, according to her teammates.

“She’s led the team this year,” Becker said. “She’s kept everyone intact and loving it, and wanting to keep practicing and playing.”

The Wolfpack began the postseason on Tuesday at Legends Stadium with a divisional play-in match against eighth-seeded Butte. With a victory against the winless Bulldogs, Glacier would play the fourth-seeded team out of the Eastern AA on Oct. 26 at Legends Stadium. This year, the Montana High School Association dropped its longtime neutral site end-of-season tournament that saw all eight teams playing at the same venue over three days, and instead adopted a single-elimination, host-site bracket that will play out over the course of a week. Glacier benefits as much as any team from the new format, getting to play divisional, quarterfinal, semifinal (Oct. 29) and state championship (Nov. 2) matches at Legends Stadium. It’s an opportunity, Byrd hopes, for the city to rally behind a team that is hoping to punctuate an already memorable season with the school’s first state tournament trophy and, perhaps, Kalispell’s first girls soccer title in more than a quarter century.

“It’s going to be a blast,” Byrd said from the field at Legends Stadium after a recent practice. “With this team and what we have right now, we’re looking at going the distance and having this place packed.”

Skyleigh Thompson of Flathead sends the ball downfield past Glacier’s Micah Hickethier at Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Sept. 5, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Kalispell’s other three soccer programs are also aiming to make some noise during the next week. Flathead’s girls (6-6-2) pulled off their own about face in 2018, reaching the state tournament for the first time since 2014, although this year’s team would have needed to upset third-seeded Missoula Sentinel in a play-in match on Oct. 22 to qualify for the field this time around.

Regardless of how the team finishes, junior Skyleigh Thompson has put together one of the school’s best offensive seasons in recent memory with 24 goals, 11 assists and 59 points, all tops in the state. Her 24 goals are more than three entire teams in the Western AA.

On the boys side, either Flathead (7-6-1) or Glacier (6-4-4) will make the state tournament since they matched up against each other on Oct. 22 in a divisional play-in match. The Braves swept the regular season series between the two teams although both squads finished the year with 22 points. Jalen Hawes leads Flathead with 16 goals and 11 assists, while Glacier is paced by sophomore Zane Elliott’s 12 goals and seven helpers.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

UPDATE (Oct. 23, 10:39 a.m.): Glacier’s girls and boys soccer teams won their matches on Tuesday, Oct. 22 to advance in the Class AA state tournament, while the Flathead boys and girls saw their seasons come to an end. Click here to read more about those matches.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.