Bulldogs Seek to Triple Down on Legacy

Montana's most decorated soccer program is searching for its third straight state title

By Micah Drew
Freshmen players Kane Nissen and Adam Healy battle for the ball at Whitefish High School soccer practice at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Sept. 11, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

It’s been 1,054 days since the Whitefish Bulldogs last lost a soccer game. It’s been 150 weeks since they lost a state championship match to Belgrade and didn’t put any goals on the scoreboard.

In those three years, the Whitefish boys soccer team has been nearly flawless, cementing its legacy as Montana’s Class A soccer powerhouse.

“The guys are used to that expectation that this is the level of soccer we play,” sixth-year head coach John Lacey said. “They know where we’ve been, and they know that’s where we want to stay.”

Lacey served as an assistant coach with the Bulldogs in 2001, when they made their first state final, and in 2002, when they won their first championship.

Since the turn of the century, Whitefish has played in 11 championship matches, winning seven of them — the most of any school in Montana.  The Bulldogs have won state titles in dominating fashion, like the 6-2 victory over Polson in 2018 or the 4-0 shutout against Laurel last season, and by just scraping by, like the 1-0 win in overtime against Hamilton in 2006.

Just about the only thing this program has not accomplished is winning three titles in a row, a feat only accomplished by Sentinel (’91-’93), Bozeman (’12-’14) and Hellgate (’15-’17), and nobody in Class A. The Bulldogs pulled off back-to-back titles in 2006-2007 but failed to make the final the following year. They did the same in 2011-2012: two titles and then a first round loss to eventual champion Livingston.

This could be the year to check that box.

“We want to be a hard team to play against,” Lacey said during a recent Friday afternoon practice at Smith Fields in Whitefish. “We were fortunate with so many returning starters last year that we hit late-season form right out of the gate — this year we’re starting further back.”

From last year’s championship team, the Bulldogs lost eight seniors, the biggest graduating class since Lacey returned to coaching in 2015. Such a loss might seem catastrophic for most teams, but the Whitefish boys pride themselves on having incredible depth each year.

“It can seem hard to live up to the legacy from [last year’s] seniors, but then I remember we are part of that legacy,” senior attacker Brandon Mendoza said. “We played a lot as juniors, and we expect a lot out of our current junior class to contribute.”

Mendoza and fellow senior captain James Thompson played in both of the recent state title games, so there’s clearly no lack of experienced leadership on the field.

“It’s not like we’ve had older players carrying us,” Thompson said. “We’ve been the ones behind the victories.”

The seniors are equally emboldened by the swath of talent among the underclassmen.

“We’ve got a great group of really good athletes among the freshmen, and we’re trying to set them up as best we can and be good role models,” Thompson said.

Lacey’s coaching style emphasizes depth in the program. Instead of separating the varsity and junior varsity teams, he commands a single combined practice throughout the season. This format gives younger players valuable experience working with upperclassmen, increasing the overall synergy among teammates and often offering varsity playing time early on. Lacey also says it contributes to the ownership the boys feel top to bottom over their team and legacy.

“They look like us,” Lacey said of the JV players. “That’s what we want out of our JV program, that they look like Whitefish soccer no matter who is on the field and what level we’re playing at.”

In the first games of the season, the varsity squad has looked like the Bulldogs that fans and followers have come to expect. In a low-spectator setting, due to fan restrictions in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulldogs shut out Hamilton in their first match in August, claimed a commanding victory over Bigfork the next day and blanked Stevensville last week 2-0.

To the players, however, settling for “as expected” isn’t good enough.

“We’ve been able to adapt to the abilities we’ve lost, but we’re still clunky,” senior defender Ian Grover said. “We had no spring season and I think that affected our touches.”

“We’ve known for a couple of years that our season gets defined by what happens in October,” Lacey said. “And what I know is we haven’t played our best soccer yet.”

Since the cancellation of the spring athletics season, question marks hung over the soccer team throughout summer conditioning, worrying the seniors that their final season would be cut off. The players are taking all necessary precautions to ensure nothing they can control comes in the way of playing the game they love.

“Being here is more work than it has been in the past, but it’s worth it,” Lacey said. “If we need to take the balls home after practice and wash them because that’s what needs to happen, we’ll do that work.”

Lacey noted that the removal of several games from the schedule gives the team more time to focus on their own game play and staying healthy, and less time stressing over other teams. The lighter schedule takes less of a toll on the players, so the demand to pull from deeper in the roster won’t be as prevalent this year.

The team is using the extra time to shore up the mainstays of the Bulldogs game: a nigh-impenetrable defense and an aggressive, high-scoring offense.

“Our defense knows their priority is to keep a clean sheet and they’re prepared as seniors to do that work,” Lacey said. “And up front, scoring goals is hard; it’s easy to lose patience. But we train from day one to increase our chances for shots from deep in the zone.”

Watching the Bulldogs practice, all but the most capable eye would be unable to distinguish the starters from the reserves. There is a clear chemistry among the teammates, one forged from a decade of playing with and against each other since the boys played for local club teams.  As Mendoza puts it, “we know each other’s weaknesses as well as their strengths.”

Lacey started coaching some of the athletes on his team when they were 7 and 8, giving him a front-row seat to a decade of development that, for the seniors, is set to culminate at the state tournament in October.

“The beauty of high school is each time they come back they’re a little better cause they’re a little more growed up, they’re more aware, they’ve watched these kids before them do it and now it’s their moment,” Lacey said. “At some point it has to end, but nobody wants it to be on them. They’re confident they’re going to keep it going and that’s a fun place for us to be.”