After months of searching for the right replacement for longtime Wolfpack soccer coach Brenden Byrd, Glacier High School Activities Director Mark Dennehy announced July 26 that Damion Blackburn will take over the girls program this fall.
“We are excited to have Damion become part of the Pack,” Dennehy said in his announcement. “Damion brings an extensive coaching and playing background in soccer and his skill set will fit well within an established culture created by Brenden Byrd at Glacier High. [His] passion for soccer is clearly evident in all that he does.”
Blackburn moved to the Flathead Valley last fall to take a full-time position as technical director of the Flathead Rapids club team. He’d previously been involved with the Rapids as the director of the program’s summer camps since 2012.
“I was told that there was a ton of potential in the Flathead, some great talent here,” Blackburn said. “When I stopped playing professionally and was pretty serious about the coaching craft full-time, I moved out here.”
“This is a passion project that deeply matters to me,” he continued. “I don’t feel we have enough advocates for our players in Northwest Montana.”
Blackburn was raised in the Midwest and has an extensive history playing the game, starting when he was 4 years old, although he “didn’t get serious until I was around eight.”
Blackburn played in high school and at the University of Dayton, an NCAA Division I program. He calls his college career “decent but hampered by ACL tears,” although he had enough success to bypass his senior year to play professionally in the MLS.
His first foray into coaching was as a teenager, working with local youth teams, and he has coached in some capacity ever since, including youth clubs, as an MLS scout working with soccer academies and with high school teams.
When he first moved out to the Flathead Valley full-time, Blackburn spent time at practices and games of every team in the valley to get a feel for the different coaching styles and program philosophies, but he didn’t expect to step into a full-time coaching role at a school so soon.
“It’s a new challenge that I’m excited to have,” Blackburn said, a day after his first meeting with members of the Wolfpack on Tuesday. “I think the players are excited and I’m excited to work with them.”
Blackburn’s hiring is not final until the school board approves it.
Coming on the heels of a championship run last year, Blackburn said there is a bit of pressure and extra scrutiny on the program during the coaching transition, but he doesn’t want the team to be concerned with winning every game right away.
“My primary objective here is not necessarily to go out and start worrying about winning. It’s absolutely important to win games, no questions, but it’s not the number one focus for us right now,” he said. “My primary role is to develop good people, good soccer players that love the game.”
The Wolfpack graduated a talented group of nine seniors who were instrumental in the team’s 14-4-0 season that included a 1-0 win over top-ranked Helena high to earn the state title.
Among the graduates were forward Taylor Brisendine, whose time stoppage goal in the first half of the state final netted the only point of the game, and defender Kenzie Williams, the Gatorade Montana Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
“Anytime you lose the state player of the year, it’s a challenge for sure,” Blackburn said. “But what I would say is I think we have a lot of excellent footballers — soccer players — that have had opportunities at the club levels beyond Montana, with regional camps and Olympic development programs.”
“I think we’ve got a lot of pieces I’m excited to work with,” he continued. “It’ll be intriguing to look at the group as a whole and see how they mesh.”
Blackburn replaces Byrd, one of the pillars of Flathead Valley soccer culture, who led the Wolfpack since 2012, a nine-season tenure that culminated in the program’s first state title last fall. Byrd was named the Northwest Girls Coach of the Year following the program’s state win, and stepped down to spend more time with his family.
Blackburn said he plans to meet with Byrd in the next week to talk about their views on the team, compare philosophies and swap notes going forward.
“I want to develop players that love the game, maybe even have a borderline obsession with it, in a positive way,” Blackburn said. “The goal is to see what the game can provide them with, and prepare them for the opportunity to look beyond the valley, to the collegiate level or beyond that. We have players here that can open doors to a lot of opportunity.”
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