Saturday’s Class A state soccer final was so similar to the final 52 weeks ago that it seemed like a mere continuation of last year’s game, with the competitive dial turned up. The field was identical, each team’s supporters claimed the same sections of sideline and the outcome brought on the same elation and heartbreak from the same sides of the field.
After a back-and-forth game that had the Whitefish Bulldogs tied 1-1 with the Columbia Falls Wildcats at the half, and tied 2-2 for most of the second, the final 90 seconds of the match was an electrifying finish.
In the 78th minute, Whitefish senior Gabe Menicke made his second goal of the game, to move the Bulldogs up by one. Just seconds later however, a penalty was called and Columbia Falls sent George Robbins out to take a shot against keeper Will Peppmeier for a chance at overtime.
“That took guts for the referee to call a penalty with 10 seconds left to tie it up,” said Columbia Falls coach O’Brien Byrd. “That penalty was laser accuracy into the corner and that keeper read it and made an unbelievable play to save the game.”
Peppmeier’s save secured Whitefish’s fourth straight state title making the Bulldogs the first boys team in Montana history to graduate a senior class that never lost a state final.
Even more amazing — the graduating class of 10 Bulldogs have never finished a soccer match with a loss. It’s been 1,463 days since the last time Whitefish lost a soccer game, the 2017 state final against Belgrade.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a group of boys or girls who have spent their entire careers without a loss,” said Whitefish coach John Lacey. “This is a great group of fantastic players and they’ve learned from those that came before them. This year in particular, they put the stamp on it, they knew what they had in front of them and they went and grabbed it.”
Last year, Columbia Falls entered the state final with more of an underdog status, and Whitefish pulled off a 3-0 shutout. This year, the Wildcats stepped on the pitch with a demeanor of belonging, despite two regular season losses to the Bulldogs in a combined score of 9-2.
“That was the most competitive state championship game that matched to very evenly matched teams,” Byrd said. “Usually you see one team’s very much a favorite and one’s trying to do anything to beat the giants. Not today. Today was toe to toe and no one backed down.”
Lacey had a similar view, saying that his team entered the game knowing it was going to go a full 80 minutes.
Menicke, the Class A leading scorer with 27 goals, was also responsible for putting the Bulldogs on the scoreboard first when he made a shot two minutes in. His prowess on offense is the perfect combination of technique and speed — Menicke has a state triple jump title and several top-10 sprint finishes on the track —even with a soccer ball in tow he can cover the field in seconds.
During the halftime huddle, Byrd brought his defenders’ attention to that very fact.
“If you’ve got the ball at your feet and that Gabe guy is anywhere near you, get rid of it immediately,” he told his team. “He’s too fast for you guys.”
Columbia Falls’ Ethan Austin answered Menicke’s first goal with an equalizer in the 23rd minute, and in the second half Kai Golan responded to Chase Sabin’s goal with an incredible cross that prompted an official to comment that it was the “most wicked left-footed shot from that side of the field in decades.”
As the prospect of overtime loomed large, Menicke took a pass from Ryder Elliot and found the back of the net once more.
“I literally can’t remember it, everything just went blank,” Menicke said. “My body just took over. I heard the ball hit the back of the net, and looked up to see the fans going crazy and my team running towards me.”
The only thing that could have boosted the excitement in the crowd more than a last minute goal was a last second penalty. As George Robbins stepped up to the line the entire pitch fell silent. Coaches crossed themselves and players gripped each other’s arms.
“I did not expect a penalty kick in the 79th minute, but we talked about this,” Lacey said. “Every boy has to step forward at their moment and the keeper’s job at that moment on the line was to stop the PK and he did it.”
“If we’re going to lose the state finals, that’s the way to do it,” Byrd said.
See more photos from the game here.
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