Year in Review

2021 Sports Year in Review

Athletes from the Flathead Valley made a splash this year on the state, national and world stages

By Micah Drew
Flathead High School wrestlers cheer on a teammate during a match against Glacier High School at Flathead High in Kalispell on Jan 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead Brawlers Make History

Banners for every sport hang from the rafters of the Flathead High School gymnasium, ticking off all the state championships the school has ever won, some of them going back more than 100 years.

There are dozens of years up there, but only one team ever gets to be first, situated at the top with the rest of the champions beneath it. It’s an opportunity that has long passed for most students, already seized by an earlier generation.

This year, however, that opportunity was staring Flathead’s burgeoning girls wrestling program directly in the face, and with an added bonus. The Brave Brawlers could be more than just the first group at Flathead to stamp their year on that banner; they could be the first school in Montana to call themselves state champs.

It was an opportunity they didn’t let slip away.

Flathead held off Billings Senior and won the inaugural girls wrestling state championship at Lockwood High School on Feb. 20, bringing home the first trophy in the sport’s history and setting the standard for generations of girls wrestlers to come.

The Brave Brawlers claimed the title with 142 points despite not having a single state champion and advancing just one wrestler, senior Aleeya Derlatka, to a championship match.

Just two weeks later, the Flathead boys won their state championships as well, the third in the last five years. The team had one individual champion, Ethan Freund, who was on loan from Washington which didn’t hold its winter sports season. Three brawlers, Asher Kemppainen, Fin Nadeau and Noah Poe-Hatten finished as runners up.

Flathead Valley Gains Minor League Team

In August, the Pioneer Baseball League board of directors approved the addition of a new team: a yet-unnamed Flathead Valley team. The team, currently known as Ridge Run, is owned by businessman Marty Kelly, who splits his time between the Flathead Valley and Atlanta.

The team will train and play at Ridge Run Field, a new state of the art stadium currently under construction north of Kalispell off U.S. Highway 93. The field will have 2,500 permanent seats with a total capacity of around 4,000.

The Pioneer league is a partner league with Major League Baseball, meaning each team controls its own roster and funding. There will be 10 teams competing in the league next year when the Flathead joins. The closest competitor, and a likely natural rival, is the Missoula Paddleheads, who won the 2021 league title.

The Whitefish Bulldogs celebrate their fourth consecutive state soccer championship after securing a 3-2 victory over The Columbia Falls Wildcats in Whitefish on Oct. 30, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish Soccer Remains Perfect

The 10 graduating seniors from Whitefish’s varsity soccer team will be the first class in Montana history to graduate without experiencing a loss while wearing their Bulldogs jerseys.

On the day before Halloween, Whitefish capped off a fourth straight undefeated season with a fourth straight state title in a game with strong similarities to their third title. The game at Smith Fields was against cross-valley rival Columbia Falls, but it was a much more competitive match than fans watched a year earlier.

A back-and-forth game had the two teams tied 1-1 at the half and 2-2 with just two minutes to go.

Whitefish senior Gabe Menicke proved his state-leading offensive status then by launching a goal that moved 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.

Robbins stepped up and lasered the ball into the lower left corner, perfectly placed to tie the game. Peppmeier made his decision and dove for the correct corner but missed saving the ball outright. It bounced off the ground, ricocheted between the post and his cleats and landed behind his outstretched left leg rolling towards the goal line. Peppmeier’s lightning quick scramble was just enough to prevent the ball from breaking the plane.

While the Bulldogs graduate 10, next year’s lineup will include three all-conference returnees and a slew of underclassman eager to continue the Bulldogs’ 57-game winning streak and add another title to the legacy.

Makena Morley of Bigfork competes in the 10,000 meter race at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon on June 26, 2021. Photo by Cortney White via 406mtsports.com

Makena Morley Wins National Championship

The Bigfork High School graduate’s professional career continues to reach new heights. Morley, who signed a multi-year sponsorship deal with Asics last year, won her first national title, taking the win at the U.S. 25k Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Morley also was the runner-up at the U.S. 20k championships, which helped her finish second in the USA Road Running Circuit.

In the Olympic Trials, Morley ran the 10k on the track during a brutal heat wave, finishing 19th.

Siri Erickson and Hannah Sempf celebrate winning Columbia Falls’ first state cross country championship. | Micah Drew

Columbia Falls, Bigfork Race to Cross Country Titles

In what was expected to be a tight race with teammate Siri Erickson, Columbia Falls senior Hanna Sempf won the individual state cross country title in Missoula. Erickson, who was with Sempf at the two-mile mark, almost didn’t finish the race, wobbling into the finish chute 20 places higher than expected.

Her finish however helped the Wildkats secure the program’s first ever state cross country title, which earned coach Jim Peacock a coach of the year nod.

“There were a lot of wet eyes and it was pretty awesome,” Peacock said after the Kats were announced as champions.

In the Class B races, Bigfork broke a 46-year drought in the boys race winning the state title behind Jack Jensen’s third place finish.

The Vikings, under first year coach Ryan Nollan, jumped nine spots from last year’s finish, one of the biggest single-season jumps for a team in recent years.  

A biker sails through a turn at Legacy Bike Park on July 16, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

Legacy Bike Park Opens   

A dream shared by Mindful Designs’ Marty Beale and Terraflow’s Pete Costain came to fruition over the summer when the partners opened the Legacy Bike Park south of Lakeside.

The 500-acre property opened with 13 trails, a mixture of flow trails and jump lines ranging from a half-mile to two-miles long, with one climbing trail. The park it primarily a gravity park and riders are shuttled 20 at a time from the parking lot to the top of the trail system.

The destination bike park has dozens of campsites available and during opening weekend drew visitors from across Montana and out of state.

Nicole Heavirland, co-captain of the the U.S. National Rugby 7s team poses for a portrait at Smith Fields in Whitefish on July 31, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Nicole Heavirland Competes in Olympics

As a 21-year-old, Nicole Heavirland, a Glacier High School graduate was in Rio de Janiero for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games but she wasn’t competing. She was the first person off the Team USA roster and made the trip as a reserve player.

This year, in the pandemic delayed 2020 Olympic Games held in Tokyo Japan, Heavirland suited up in the red, white and blue with an eye on helping Team USA to the medal stand.

Heavirland has spent the last few years playing with the national team, known as the Eagles, and co-captained the team to a No. 2 world ranking in 2019, which earned them a berth in the Olympics.

During the tournament, Team USA finish on top of its pool before losing a match to Great Britain in the quarterfinals. The Eagles went on to defeat China and then lost to 2016 gold medalists Australia to finish sixth overall. 

Rory Smith of Glacier High School. Best of Preps spring sports athletes in Kalispell on June 1, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Wolfpack Takes Tennis Titls

Despite winning the Western AA Divisional tennis tournament for the last decade, Glacier High School hadn’t been able to replicate that success at the state tournament since 2013 until this year. The Wolfpack pulled together 25 points to take home the top trophy.

Senior Rory Smith was the only reigning singles champion in the state and he defended the title he won as a sophomore in 2019 in a quick two sets.

The doubles pair of Ethan Purdy and Harrison Sanders took third place to help the Wolfpack cinch the championships.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.