Flathead Valley, known statewide as a powerhouse for soccer talent, will soon add another avenue for young players to gain exposure to the sport.
The Columbia Falls School Board voted unanimously at its April 12 meeting to fully sponsor a soccer program at Columbia Falls Junior High (CFJH).
The junior high program will be a first in Montana when it launches its inaugural season this coming fall.
“Before, if you wanted to play soccer and be a Wildcat or a Bulldog or a Brave, you couldn’t do that until high school.” said O’Brien Byrd, the head coach of the Columbia Falls High School team who approached the school board with the proposal. “If money or logistics was a problem, you couldn’t play soccer, but this program will bus kids to every away game and money is no longer standing in the way.”
The CFJH program has hired Patrick Jones, former varsity assistant coach at the high school, and Emily Wortman, a Wildkat soccer alumnus, to lead the boys and girls teams respectively.
Byrd began brainstorming how to make soccer more accessible for younger players when he began coaching at the high school seven years ago after a stint with the Whitefish high school teams.
“Right away I rolled up my sleeves and started to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the programs,” Byrd said. “The number one area of improvement was with the incoming freshman — on average only one or two players had any real competitive experience.”
In comparison, Byrd said Whitefish benefits from having the Flathead Rapids club program based in the same fields the high school teams practice at. He saw Columbia Falls as disadvantaged without a localized club.
The Montana High School Association sanctioned soccer as a high school sport 31 years ago, and since then it has remained distinct from other sanctioned sports due to the lack of junior high programs. For the most part, across the state football, cross country, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, tennis and track all have teams at the middle school and junior high level.
Up until now, local kids wanting to play soccer prior to the high school level had to join one of the three club teams in the valley — the Flathead Valley United, Northwest Soccer Club or the Flathead Rapids — which can cost anywhere between $160 to $500 depending on the club and level of competition.
As a school-sponsored sport, the CFJH program will be fully funded, and Byrd is already working to keep even minor costs, such as equipment, down, by agreeing to pass on used gear and equipment from the high school team indefinitely.
“I think our numbers are going to be gigantic,” Byrd said.
According to Byrd, the junior high teams will compete against club teams in northwest Montana, playing between six and eight games as well as in the Tamarack Fall Classic soccer tournament in Kalispell.
“We’ll simply do that until one day other local middle schools join the ranks and we have a self-sustained league,” Byrd said, adding that anyone who wants to sponsor similar programs at other schools can contact him for a copy of the template, budget and proposal down to the last bullet point.
“Once our school board identified the glaring inequalities between sports exists and the meager budget to actually field a boys and girls team … it’s easier than they think,” he added. “From someone who wants to grow the game of soccer in Flathead Valley, this is a gigantic piece to the puzzle.”
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