Sports

2021 Flathead Valley Fall Sports Preview

Powerful local soccer teams, standout distance runners, rising golf talents and strong volleyball squads highlight the fall season

By Micah Drew
Sam Ells of Glacier High School runs in the Class AA state cross country meet at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell on Oct. 23, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A lot of fall sports attention is spent on the football field (see last week’s football preview), but there are four other sports that have kicked off seasons in the last week, each with talented athletes, strong team legacies and high expectations for the year. 

The Whitefish boys soccer team is riding a multi-year undefeated streak, setting a high bar for rest of the talented programs across the valley, a number of which have eyes on reaching a state final. Several local distance runners are poised to make runs at their respective class state titles in October, and the region’s traditionally strong golf teams have some top players in contention. 

SOCCER

Whitefish’s Gabe Menicke and Tyler Hull of Columbia Falls battle for the ball during the Class A state title at Smith Fields on Oct. 31, 2020. Whitefish beat Columbia Falls 3-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish boys haven’t lost a soccer match since 2017, making them de facto favorites to win the state title for an unprecedented fourth straight year, which would further cement the state’s best soccer dynasty. 

The Bulldogs lost seven seniors, including four all-state honorees. Among them was Brandon Mendoza, who scored a state-leading 21 goals last season. Senior Gabe Menicke scored nine goals last year and will look to fill the void left by Mendoza. Fellow seniors Chase Sabin and Darby McCarthy will join Menicke to lead the Bulldogs on the field, while Will Peppmeier will continue his tenure in the goal. 

There is also a new crop of a dozen freshmen on the roster this year, and coach John Lacey’s strategy of playing deep in his lineup should jumpstart the underclassmen’s development. 

Columbia Falls, Whitefish’s chief rival, faced the Bulldogs in last year’s state final and returns a talented squad led by Kai Golan, Nico Lang, Andrew Miner and Finley Sundberg. Golan and Sundberg landed 16 goals and 15 assists between them, and the Wildcats will be ready to return to the state final. 

On the girls side, both Columbia Falls and Whitefish are looking to build off a their state tournament appearances from 2020 when the Wildkats fell in the semifinals and the Bulldogs lost an overtime state championship to Laurel. 

Every all-state athlete in the conference from last season came from one of the two Flathead Valley schools, and every one of them returns. 

Columbia Falls senior Maddie Robison led the state in goals (31) and assists (21) last year. Behind her, Cheyanne Johnston-Heinz and Hope McAtee combined for an additional 28 goals and 15 assists, giving the Wildkats a good head start on Laurel, which graduated three of its four top point scorers. 

The Bulldogs, who won the division last season and knocked off all-time Class A title leader Billings Central in the state semifinals, returns five all-staters: Isabelle Cooke, Emma Barron, Anna Akey, Sophie Olson and Josie Schneider. 

Sage Anderson of the Flathead Braves, left, and Braden Nitschelm of the Glacier Wolfpack play at Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Sept. 15, 2020. Glacier won 7-3. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In Class AA, Glacier’s girls team is breaking in a new head coach in Damion Blackburn.  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 his players to be concerned.

“My primary objective here is not necessary 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, including 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. The team does return sophomore Reagan Brisendine, however, who was second on the team in combined goals/assists last year and is back after earning all-conference honors.

On the boys side, the Wolfpack hope to match last year’s success, which culminated in a semifinal appearance against five-time state champion Missoula Hellgate. All-state honoree Eli Mildren is back, as are all-conference selections Zane Elliot and Burke Fox.

The Bravettes lost one of the best players in the state last year, Skyleigh Thompson, who is now playing for the Griz, but will have a exciting senior leader in Lily Tanko. 

GOLF

Glacier High School golfer Tyler Avery
Tyler Avery of Glacier High School competes in the Kalispell Invitational at Buffalo Hill Golf Club in Kalispell on Sept 17, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The first sport to start competitions this year was golf, and Class AA teams already have two invitationals under their belt. The Glacier boys were 35 strokes back from AA defending champion Gallatin at the Great Falls Invite and were led by junior Tyler Avery, who has finished top 10 in his previous state appearances, as well as Will Salonen, who was sixth last year. The Glacier girls won the Missoula invitational by two strokes over Capital, paced by Stella Claridge in third and Chloe Tanner in fifth. 

After a forced playoff with teammate Cameron Kahle last season, state runner-up Billy Smith from Whitefish is seeking his own individual title this year. The Bulldogs will look to defend last year’s state title with help from senior Marcus Kilman (eighth) and junior Johnny Nix (10th). 

CROSS COUNTRY

Flathead cross country coach Jesse Rumsey walks away from the finish line alongside her runners Neila Lyngholm, left, Kya Wood and Nora Iams at the Glacier Invitational at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell on Oct. 14, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead Bravettes enter the cross country season with momentum following 2020’s fourth-place finish and a strong track season by many of the team’s top runners. Only one runner, Tori Noland-Gillespie, from last year’s state team graduated, and a strong crew of underclassman are chomping at the bit to make the varsity squad. The top returners are Lili Rumsey Eash (seventh), Kya Wood (30th), Neila Lyngholm (37th) and Madelaine Jellison (40th). 

Rumsey Eash followed up her top-10 placement at the state met with a stellar track season that saw her finish fourth in the 800- and 1600-meter runs and eighth in the 3200-meter run, making her a strong contender for an individual podium spot this fall. Two runners who beat her last season graduated. 

Sam Ells, a senior at Glacier High School, will once again lead the Wolfpack around the course. After a 19th place finish in 2019, Ells fought through a strained hamstring and ended up 30th last year, despite never finishing worse than fifth all season. With a third-place finish in the 1600 meters during the track season, Ells proved he should be considered a top contender for the state title. 

Behind him, the Wolfpack return five of their seven varsity runners with Jeff Liliard (34) and Mac Adkins (47) offering some extra upperclassman leadership. 

Hannah Sempf, cross country runner for Columbia Falls High School. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In Class A, Columbia Falls is coming off a program-best second-place finish on the girls side and returning a strong squad. Three returners finished in the top 10 at state last year lead by Hannah Sempf in third, who will be the top returner in the state. The Wildkats also return sophomore Ally Sempf, who sat out last year’s state meet but was a top-three runner for the team. Defending champions Laurel lost two of their top-three runners.

On the boys side, the Wildcats lost five seniors from varsity but return senior James Peterson, who has finished as high as 11th at state. 

Another group to watch this year is the very young Whitefish boys team, led by sophomores Mason Genovese and Deneb Linton. The Bulldogs return all seven varsity runners from a seventh-place team and could make big strides toward the podium. 

In Class B, Bigfork will have a new coach, Ryan Nollan, and a small roster with only 14 athletes listed. Senior Elliot Sanford is the highest-placing Viking after his 33rd-place showing last year. 

VOLLEYBALL

Sidney Gulick of the Glacier Wolfpack dives for a ball during a match against the Butte Bulldogs at Glacier High School in Kalispell on Nov. 5, 2019. Butte won, ending Glacier’s season. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After 2020 saw the state’s four classifications holding state tournaments in separate locations for the first time in nearly two decades, all volleyball tournament action will return to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Montana State University this fall. 

Glacier High School has continued an upward trajectory after missing the state tournament in 2019. Last season, the Wolfpack made it to the quarterfinals before losing in three sets to runner-up Great Falls CMR. The Wolfpack will need to refill its roster, however, after graduating two all-state and two all-conference players. Junior Sidney Gulick will be one to watch on the outside.

Across town, the Flathead Bravettes haven’t reached the state podium since 2012, but second-year coach Emily Russell is hungry for a trophy after being a member of the 2012 runner-up team. In 2020, the Bravettes were 1-12 and lost a play-in game to Helena High. Senior Savanna Sterck is Flathead’s lone returning all-conference player and will be a key leader as an outside hitter. 

In Class A, Columbia Falls is looking to remain on top of the conference after finishing 19-2 last season and losing in the state title match to Billings Central. The Wildkats are just five years removed from back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016, and have lost to Billings Central at the state tournament the last two years. The Wildkats graduated several all-conference standouts, including all-state MVP Madysen Hoerner, but return all-conference honoree Jazzy Marino as a crucial senior leader. Last year, Whitefish was 4-5 in conference play but missed a state tournament berth for the second straight year. 

Bigfork is led by coach Ariel Stallknecht for the third year, and aims to improve on their 2-15 record from last year with leadership from all-conference returnee Myranda Gray. It’s been 16 years since the Valkyries last secured a berth in the state tournament, when Bigfork was playing in Class A.

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