When the Wildcats gathered together after the state soccer tournament, coach O’Brien Byrd asked all non-graduating team members to verbally express their goals for the next season.
“There was only one goal they had: to win state,” Byrd said. “It gave me goosebumps when I heard that from them.”
The Columbia Falls boys lost the state title 3-0 to their cross-valley rivals in Whitefish. The Bulldogs’ win cemented Whitefish’s program as a Montana soccer dynasty, becoming only the third team in history to three-peat at state.
“Last year we had a great team,” Byrd said. “Maybe any other year it would have been a state championship team. But there was one team ahead of us.”
This year, the playing field is similar, but Byrd thinks it might be a little more level toward Columbia Falls.
“I tell my guys that it should be Whitefish’s season. There’s too many things going for them right now,” Byrd said. “But first and foremost I remind them that nothing’s guaranteed.”
In an acknowledged coaching cliché, Byrd’s philosophy is to take it one game at a time, and focus on incremental improvements, which can be hard to get players to understand at times.
“Buying into process over outcome is hard sometimes because they’re teenage boys,” Byrd said. “They’re like squirrels — they like shiny things and are hard to get to slow down and get down to earth.”
“One day we will put a lot of emphasis into the outcome, but it’s not today, and it’s not in a month,” he added.
The Columbia Falls girls team also ended its 2020 seasons at the feet of the state champion. The Wildkats lost to Laurel 5-1 in the semifinals, before the Locomotives beat the Whitefish girls in overtime in the state final.
With three-quarters of the Class A state finalists (and half of the state semi-finalists) coming from the Flathead Valley, Northwest Montana is on the map as the state’s soccer hot spot, and in recent years Whitefish has been the team to beat.
“It’s an interesting thing — in years past, in order to beat Whitefish on the girls side we had to concede tactically and be really conservative and defend first,” said Wildkats coach Thomas Clark. “But we’ve been building something where we can play them straight up and can expect really competitive end-to-end soccer games.”
Standout players have defined the Columbia Falls girls program, most recently Josie Windauer, who currently plays for the Griz, but Clark says the team is now more balanced and electric across the board.
“In the past we’ve been super reliant on one or two players,” he said. “Now we have a team where every week it’ll be another player scoring and multiple players are scoring hat tricks.”
That’s not to say there aren’t still standouts on the roster. In the first match of the season against Lone Peak, senior Maddie Robison broke the all-class career assist record with 49 career assists as of Sept. 13.
Both Clark and Byrd attribute the rise in playing talent in Columbia Falls to a community investment in the game.
“The support systems we have in Columbia Falls have really invested in grassroots soccer,” Clark said. “Even three years ago, people had less than three, and even zero, seasons of competitive soccer prior to high school.”
This fall, Columbia Falls Junior High became the first in the state to offer school-sanctioned soccer, adding yet another avenue for young players to gain top-level experience. Byrd spearheaded the push for the program after brainstorming how to make soccer accessible to players and families who couldn’t afford to play club soccer or travel around the valley for practices.
“It makes a difference in the brand of soccer we play here,” Clark said. “We’re catching up to Whitefish.”
Both coaches also are quick to add that their own coaching philosophies and styles have roots in the Whitefish program. Byrd coached the Bulldogs for a number of years before heading up the Columbia Falls program, and Clark played for the Bulldogs in high school.
With that level of interconnectedness between the programs, the coaches and players know a lot about the style and techniques their rivals employ, so it begs the question of Columbia Falls: how do you beat a Whitefish team that knows how you’re going to play?
“We’re going to throw something at them they’ve never seen before from a Columbia Falls team,” Byrd said. “They’re going to expect new tactics and a new look, so we’re going to show them something new from a Wildcat team they can’t fathom.”
“Ultimately, we have the highest level of respect and admiration for the program at Whitefish,” Clark said. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t cool that, at the end of the day, half of the semifinalists at the state tournament are from our area. And maybe one season it’ll be all the finalists.”
The first rivalry game played out on Tuesday evening, with Whitefish winning both the boys and girls games, 4-1 and 4-0 respectively. More scores can be found online at flatheadbeacon.com/sports.
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