Fall prep sports are a go, albeit in a muted format. For weeks, administrators, parents and athletes have wondered whether the fall sports season would go the same way as last spring: canceled championships, suspended seasons and an end to in-person practices.
Discussions on how to safely hold a fall sports season have been ongoing since midsummer, and each school district and county has come up with its own guidelines to implement.
In Flathead County, stands and sidelines will be a little quieter, as fans will be limited to just two spectators per home participant in uniform for football, volleyball and soccer games, and no out-of-county spectators will be allowed. This is more lenient than other parts of the state, such as Yellowstone County and Helena Public Schools, which aren’t allowing any spectators. In addition, Class AA schools will only compete in-conference during the regular season.
There will be no concessions offered at any games. Coaches, officials and players will be required to wear masks whenever possible and all overnight trips are currently suspended, with a possible post-season championship exception.
Under these restrictions, fall seasons are starting up and competition schedules are set — the first prep action since February. Here is a sport-by-sport breakdown of the fall sports season (with football to come next week) for Flathead Valley schools as the academic year gets underway.
The first sport to start competitions this year was golf, with class AA kicking off the season at the Great Falls Invite on Aug. 17. The tournament’s format involved the boys and girls competitions taking place at different courses, another adjustment to playing during a pandemic. Flathead’s Marcella Mercer took the individual victory with a score of 75, and will be looking to improve on her third-place finish at state from 2019. Bozeman’s Cooper Knaar finished one spot higher last year, but Mercer was seven strokes ahead in Great Falls.
The Glacier boys were only 14 strokes back from new AA school Gallatin in Great Falls and, after finishing fifth last year, will be aiming for improvement. Sophomore Tyler Avery is coming off a stellar freshman season where he finished third behind now-Gallatin twins Justus and Jordan Verge. He will be backed up on the green by Will Salonen. Flathead’s Ezra Epperly is also off to a solid start for the year, after coming in fourth in Great Falls.
After a runner-up finish as a sophomore in 2018, Whitefish’s Cameron Kahle forced a playoff at last season’s tournament and won the individual state title on the third playoff hole. It will be a rematch of last year as the senior returns to defend his title against Laurel’s Carson Hackman, but Kahle might find some in-team competition from Billy Smith. Smith is a transfer from Texas who fired a two-under 70 to win his first match of the season in Polson on Aug. 20, two strokes ahead of teammate Jonny Nix and seven strokes ahead of Kahle.
Kalispell is hosting the state cross country meet on Oct. 24 at Rebecca Farm, giving local running buffs a front-row but socially distanced seat to the state’s best harriers. How that will work with the Montana High School Association’s rule that only 28 participants can line up at once remains to be seen.
The biggest storyline in Montana cross country this year is the breakup of Bozeman High with the opening of Gallatin High. Bozeman’s boys and girls runners have won every state championship since 2007, with one exception in the 2018 girls race. It might take a few years for the fields to balance out, but this year is the first that the split will be a factor.
Flathead is a top contender to knock off the perennial champions. The girls were just 26 points off the podium last fall, and had a far-from-perfect day. This year, coach Jesse Rumsey knows the Bravettes have the depth to make, and potentially top, the podium. All seven varsity girls return this year and are all-state-caliber runners. The likely scorers for Flathead will be Tori Noland-Gillespie (15th), Kya Wood (19th), Neila Lyngholm (21st) and Madelaine Jellison (35th). The team also adds freshman Lillian Eash, who could be the top freshman in Montana and will immediately impact the Bravettes lineup.
With the graduation of Glacier’s Simon Hill, now running for the Griz, Class AA will crown a new boys champion this year. Only two of the top 10 runners from last year are returning, and Hellgate’s Ignatius Fitzgerald is a clear favorite to win after a third-place finish at state.
Sam Ells, now a junior at Glacier High School, is the top returner from the Flathead Valley. He finished 19th at last year’s state meet and should be a top-five contender this fall. Both the boys and girls teams at Glacier are young, and new head coach Cody Moore is looking for the program to make big strides.
In Class A, Columbia Falls is looking to add a third straight state title and cement a dynasty on the boys side. The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them this year, with the loss of fourth-place finisher Aidan Jarvis to a move, but will still have a senior eyeing the individual title in James Role (seventh), who will be the third fastest returner in Class A. The team also returns five varsity runners, including all-state finisher James Petersen (11th). Coach Jim Peacock believes the experience up front will get younger runners to step up to fill in the gaps and keep the team on the podium.
On the girls side, the Wildkats are young and relatively inexperienced, but return most of last year’s varsity team, led by all-state finishers Lara Erickson (12th) and Hannah Sempf (17th).
Other runners to watch this season include the Whitefish girls, led by Paetra Cooke (the Bulldogs girls were third in the state last year). Bigfork continues to rebuild after several years off the podium for either team.
The Whitefish boys haven’t lost a soccer match since 2017, making them de facto favorites to win the state title for the third straight year and the fifth time in 10 years.
The Bulldogs lost eight seniors, including three all-state leaders in Ian Lacey, Sam Menicke and Casey Schneider, who combined for 50 points last year. However, the team is returning a number of other veterans, including senior midfielder Brandon Mendoza and defenders Ian Grover and Joshua Gunderson, all poised to step into the spotlight and keep the Bulldogs on top of the state. The biggest challenge for the Bulldogs will be replacing a top-notch keeper.
On the girls side, both Columbia Falls and Whitefish are looking to build off a their state semifinal appearances from 2019.
The 2019 Wildkats finished out an undefeated conference season last year, and reached the state semifinals before falling to eventual champions Laurel. However, the WildKats will feel the loss of Josie Windauer to the University of Montana. Windauer was a three-time all-state selection who broke the school’s single-season scoring record with 33 goals her senior season.
Juniors Madeline Robison and Josie Schneider, both all-state selections last year, will be the new leaders for Columbia Falls as the team looks to return to the state tournament. Whitefish has two returning all-state returnees in juniors Emma Barron and Sophie Olsen.
In Class AA, Glacier’s boys and girls teams are coming off semi-final appearances in last year’s state tournaments. The Wolfpack girls narrowly lost 2-1 to state champion Billings West, and a lot of talent is returning. Goal-happy Madison Becker and two-time all-state center back Kenzie Williams will be leading the team, along with midfielder Emily Cleveland and wing Taylor Brisenbine. The boys return all-state selections Diego Mendoza and Bradon Nitschelm.
The Bravettes lost to their valley rival in the first round of last year’s state tournament, but return one of the best players in the state. Senior Skyleigh Thompson was the top goal scorer in Class AA last year, with 24 goals and an additional 11 assists. Thompson was the Western AA conference player of the year and has already committed to play for the University of Montana in 2021. She will be looking to lead her team through the state tournament this year to cap off a stellar high school career.
Flathead’s coach Emily Russell is no stranger to state volleyball tournaments — the Bravettes alum helped lead her team to a second-place finish as a senior in 2012, the last time the school took home a trophy. Now Russell has returned to coach at her alma mater. In 2019, the Bravettes missed the Class AA state tournament, going 5-13, after finishing fourth the year before. They will have their work cut out for them, as the young Bravettes have no returning all-conference players, but Russell hopes to develop the program into a team that consistently competes in the playoff bracket.
The last two years have been a rebuilding phase for Glacier High School, with last year’s 7-7 conference record and 2018’s loss to Flathead in the state play-in match. However, the Wolfpack find themselves in an improved situation this year. After missing the Class AA state tournament for the last two years, all-state returnees Kaylee Fritz and Emma Anderson are looking change that streak. Coach Christy Harkins has had one of the most consistent teams in the conference over the last decade, with the Wolfpack earning five straight tourney berths from 2010-2014, including three conference titles and a third-place trophy in 2016.
In Class A, Columbia Falls is looking to remain on top of the conference after going undefeated in league play last season. The Wildkats are just four years removed from back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016, and lost to runner-up Billings Central in last season’s tournament. The Wildkats return all-conference standouts Madysen Hoerner, Dillen Hoerner and Lauren Falkner. Whitefish didn’t earn a berth at the state tournament last year, but did the four years before and will be looking to return, led by all-conference honorable mention senior Mikenna Ells.
Bigfork is led by coach Ariel Dayne for the second year and aims to improve on its 2-15 record from last year. It’s been 15 years since the Valkyries last secured a berth in the state tournament, when Bigfork was playing in Class A.