At halftime during the Class A boys championship soccer match on Halloween, Whitefish head coach John Lacey gathered his team together in a circle.
“This is your guys’ last game,” Lacey said, addressing the seniors in the lineup. “Let’s try to make every minute left a perfect minute of soccer.”
As the second half wore on, the numbers on the Whitefish side of the scoreboard ticked up as the timer counted down.
When the clock passed the two-minute mark, Lacey told the team members on the bench to stand up and get ready to rush the field.
It wasn’t a bold statement, merely one that Lacey has gotten used to issuing to his team during the last game of the season.
When the final whistle blew, an extra dozen green-and-gold clad players stormed onto the field to join their teammates in celebrating a 3-0 victory and yet another championship for the most dominant team in the state.
“We wanted to play good soccer the whole time, and today we did that,” Lacey said after the match. “We were tested, of course, and we want that in the final, but our game is all about going wide and we did that and our goals reflected that.”
The win marked a third consecutive state championship for the Bulldogs, a feat that has only been accomplished by three Class AA teams in Montana soccer history. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a match in three seasons, an unblemished streak marred only by a draw against Columbia Falls this fall and one against Polson in 2018.
Early in the season, Lacey predicted that the toughest competition would come from Columbia Falls, a testament to the strength of the game in Flathead Valley.
The Columbia Falls and Whitefish teams have been intertwined for two decades. The teams have faced against each other three times in the state finals — Columbia Falls winning both priors in 2001 and 2003 — and combined to account for 11 of 20 state titles.
The coaching staff has been similarly intertwined. Lacey was an assistant at Whitefish from 2000-2002, and O’Brien Byrd was the head coach from 2003-2014, when he left to take over the Columbia Falls program.
“The fact is that boys who were part of this legacy before, some of them were coached by Coach Byrd: he helped build this program into what it is now,” Lacey said.
After the game, Byrd visibly waffled between excitement at coaching the second best team in the state and obvious distress at having come tantalizingly close to a state title.
“All year we just found a way to win,” Byrd said. “We lost 12 guys to quarantine, we’ve had injuries, but we would always overcome. Who would have known that with all the adversity we faced we would be the second best team in the state at the end?”
Byrd led a team of mostly underclassmen to the Wildcats’ first state championship match in 15 years —the last time the Cats were in the title game, they beat a Whitefish team coached by Byrd.
“We had a game plan to beat the best team in the state, and for the first 20 minutes, everything was going according to plan,” Byrd said. “Then they had a free kick that turned the game and once they got on the board it gave Whitefish confidence.”
The shot that put the Bulldogs up in the first half came when junior Chase Sabin delivered a free kick toward junior Gabe Menicke, who popped it into the goal with his head.
“That first goal could not have been any more perfect,” Menicke said. “I think the first goal is the most important of the game for sure, and after that we started pressing harder and working harder.”
In the second half, Menicke connected with senior captain Brandon Mendoza, who slipped a shot past Wildcats keeper Bryce Dunham in the 49th minute. Menicke added his second goal of the game in the 65th minute to give the Bulldogs a commanding victory.
Mendoza’s goal was his 21st of the season, making him the stop scorer in the state this year.
“I knew all we had to do was match our energy with them, and we’d start winning,” Mendoza said. “Our midfielders did well, too, and they struggled at the beginning of the season a bit but now they’re our train, the powerhouse behind our wins.”
“I’m glad I got the juniors three wins in a row so they can get four,” Mendoza continued. “I just love my team.”
The Bulldogs have a strong group of underclassmen, giving Lacey confidence the team will return strong next year even after losing some key seniors.
“I guarantee that right now as you and I are talking, we’re looking at a whole bunch of non-graduating kids who are looking at next year, being in the exact same spot,” Lacey said, motioning to clusters of Whitefish players scattered around the field. “They know they’re going to get older and better and it’s going to be their time next.”
“I mean look at this,” the coach continued, gesturing toward the green-and-gold fans and similarly colored hillsides surrounding the pitch. “Is there a better place to play soccer than this? I think not.”