Sports

Winner, Winner

Unstoppable Whitefish won its second consecutive state soccer title with another undefeated season and burnished its reputation as the preeminent program in Montana

One year after beating conference rival Polson to win the Class A boys soccer state championship, a loaded Whitefish Bulldogs team entered the season with impossibly high expectations, an enviable amount of depth and talent, and a target on their backs larger than any team in recent memory.

But the boys in Whitefish were up to the task, running roughshod through the state of Montana, winning every match by at least three goals and scoring four times in the final match of the season to hoist the state championship trophy once again. Their perfect 15-0-0 record and the dominant way those wins came allowed the Bulldogs to stake an honest claim as the greatest Class A soccer team ever assembled.

The year, of course, was 2012, and that Whitefish team capped its masterpiece of a season with a 4-1 win in the state title match against Billings Central, scoring first less than a minute into the game and pulling away late. The seniors on that team went 28-2-0 in their last two seasons and won the last 24 matches they played. The 2012 Bulldogs outscored the opposition 92-5 that year, and routed their three postseason opponents, ostensibly their stiffest competition, by a combined 17-1.

It was the second set of back-to-back titles for Whitefish and what turned out to be just the middle of a dynasty now nearly two decades old, one that seemingly reached its peak in 2006 and 2007 when the Bulldogs won two titles and did not lose a single match, a stretch that began a 43-match unbeaten streak. Curran Edland, a senior on the 2012 squad who went on to play Division I soccer at Robert Morris University, told the Beacon after his senior season that the teams of the past were the standard his Bulldogs tried to meet.

“I remember watching those back-to-back state champ teams (in 2006 and 2007),” Edland said in 2012. “Coming into the year we knew what we had to do.”

Fast-forward seven years and it’s striking how little has changed. Ian Lacey, a senior on the 2019 Whitefish Bulldogs, scored on a bit of trickery off a corner kick in the third minute of this year’s Class A state championship match in Laurel on Nov. 2, a touch of early magic that paved the way for a 4-0 Whitefish win. The title came a year after the 2018 team went 14-0-1, beating conference rival Polson in the title match, and extended a host of impressive and still-active streaks — 17 victories in a row, 30 straight results without a loss, three straight years in the state title match and two championships in as many seasons — for the undisputed kings of Montana soccer.

“I’ve spent my whole life ball-boying for high school games here and saw that state 2012 state championship team — awesome teams like that,” Lacey said. “And it is so cool being able to recognize, wow, we’re right there if not above that level.”

Marvin Kimera of the Whitefish Bulldogs sends a pass forward during a Class A semifinal match against the Billings Central Catholic School at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Oct. 26, 2019. The Bulldogs won 11-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana High School Association first sponsored boys soccer in 1991 and split the sport into two classifications in 2001. In the years since, Whitefish has played in 11 of 19 Class A championship matches, won seven state titles, and gone back-to-back on three separate occasions. The program’s seven championships are two more than any other school, regardless of classification, and super-teams like the ones in 2007, 2012 and 2019 have dominated in a way that borders on being unfair.

This year’s Whitefish team went 15-0-0 and won by fewer than four goals only twice, both times against rival Columbia Falls. The Bulldogs outscored their opponents 102-9, posted nine shutouts, and spent most of the season emptying the bench in the second halves of games. In the postseason, Whitefish clobbered Stevensville 10-2 in the quarterfinals and crushed Billings Central 11-0 in the semis, running up a 25-2 cumulative playoff score en route to the title.

The eight-member senior class that played together for the last time in Laurel can make a strong argument, as Lacey said, that they are the most successful class to ever come through the storied program. This group is the first to ever play in three straight state title matches, losing to Belgrade in 2017 with a starting lineup littered with freshmen and sophomores, and perhaps no team has ever had as much depth as this one. The Bulldogs routinely went 24 players deep during the regular season, had nine different players score at least four goals on the year, and boasted three of the five leading point scorers in the state, including the top two, Casey Schneider (18 goals, 16 assists) and Sam Menicke (17 goals, 11 assists).

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Whitefish’s coronation was just how predictable it all was. The Bulldogs returned 10 of 11 starters from the 2018 team, and the expectation entering the season was nothing less than an undefeated state title. One of the team’s mantras, that goals win games, is both plainly true and an expression of the club’s insatiable killer instinct. Whitefish plays an aggressive, scoring-centric style, and the Bulldogs regularly found the back of the net quickly in matches this year, something that only ratcheted up the pressure on opponents who knew they had to keep things low scoring to have any chance to compete. Whitefish was so good, in fact, that all-state senior defender Joseph Houston, one of four team captains with Lacey, Schneider and Menicke, spent most of the 2019 season admiring his teammates while the grass grew around him.

“I wouldn’t say it was as much fun (this year), especially coming from me playing center back,” Houston said, somewhat cheekily. “I got a lot more action in previous years, but it was fun watching from the back and watching my teammates succeed.”

Casey Schneider of the Whitefish Bulldogs takes a shot on goal during Class A semifinal match at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Oct. 26, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As much as anything, Whitefish’s greatest challenge was staving off complacency and resisting the temptation to rest on their well-earned laurels. Part of what prevented that from happening was Whitefish itself, and not just the history the Bulldogs were chasing. Head Coach John Lacey trains his entire program together, which means no separate junior varsity and varsity practices. Those full practices allow young players to sharpen their skills by routinely matching up against the best talent in the state and push veterans to remain diligent lest they lose their spot to an improving underling. The program’s size — there are 33 boys soccer players at Whitefish, one of, if not the, largest roster in the state — is built on the school’s strong history and tradition, but even the head coach knows team numbers are the kind of thing that ebbs and flows, no matter the school.

“Whitefish is just in a great spot now in soccer,” Lacey said. “I know it’s not going to last forever and we’re certainly appreciating it right now.”

The Bulldogs lose eight seniors from this year’s team but will still be among the handful of teams discussed as potential 2020 state champions, with juniors Ian Grover, Brandon Mendoza, Joshua Gunderson and sophomore Gabe Menicke poised to step into the spotlight. In the meantime, the seniors that carried the Whitefish tradition forward and added two more championship plaques to an overflowing trophy case are still processing the end of an incredible run.

“It’s been amazing,” Sam Menicke said. “It’s just the best way it could have ended, being in the state final three years in a row has been unbelievable.”

“It’s surreal and I think I sometimes take it for granted,” Schneider said. “I think what’s going to allow me to appreciate it is just time. I think I’ll appreciate it much more (in a few years).”

By then, no doubt, a new group of Whitefish boys will be talking about the days when they watched the mythical 2019 team pile up goals, wins and titles. And they’ll be plotting a new history all their own.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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