With the change of the seasons comes a change in practice and competition venues for the Flathead Valley’s high school athletes. Leaving indoor courts, pools and mat rooms, competitors will now head outdoors to the track, softball diamonds and tennis courts.
Last year delivered strong performances across the board from local athletes in all sports, and even with some remarkable seniors lost to graduation, a talented crew of youngsters will be stepping up to the plate (or starting line, or baseline). Here are a few storylines to follow as the 2022 spring seasons get underway.
Glacier finally had a breakthrough at the state tennis tournament last year, coming away with the team title for the boys. Two-time singles champion Rory Smith graduated last year, as did half of the third-ranking doubles team, but the other half, junior Harrison Sanders, will return with a new partner and an eye on the doubles title.
For Flathead, Drew Lowry brings state tournament experience to the Braves as a doubles member, who will also be matched with a new partner.
Up north, both Columbia Falls and Whitefish graduated top players, including the girls singles champion and runner up, and the third and fourth placing boys singles players, but both programs have solid histories of training athletes to the top level. Returning will be the fourth-place finishing Whitefish doubles pair of Highland Lee-French, and Aaron Dicks.
Down in Bigfork, senior Bane Barrows looks to improve on last year’s fourth place singles finish in Class B.
Track and Field
Glacier celebrated its first boys team title in 2018 and followed that up with fourth place finishes in 2019 and 2021. Flathead’s boys finished runner-up in 2018 and third in 2019 but were at the bottom of the Class AA standings last year.
Glacier senior Caleb Bernhardt had agonizingly close defeats in the hurdle events, falling to a champion rival from Sentinel last year — this year he wants to top the podium in both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles. Also on the sprinting side of track events, junior Jeff Lilliard is following up a third-place 400-meter podium spot and hoping to crack the 50-second barrier in the one-lap event, which will translate to strength on the Wolfpack relay teams. On the field, senior Tate Kauffman is the top returner in the triple jump. Glacier’s other big point scorer will be senior distance runner Sam Ells, whose near-undefeated cross-country season marks him as one of the state’s top threats in all three distance events.
On the girls side, Flathead is fielding some strong athletes this year, especially on the track. State veterans Cerise Lee and Peyton Walker both scored in the 400-meter and helped a podium-worthy 4×400 relay team. Sophomore Lili Rumsey-Eash is likely to continue her dominance in the distance track events — last year she tripled, finishing fourth in the 800- and 1600-meter runs, and eighth in the 3200-meter. In the field events, several top-10 state performers are returning including Alliyah Stevens in the shotput, Taliana Miller in the javelin, Hania Halverson in pole vault and Kennedy Moore in high jump.
In Class A competitions, a handful of athletes from Whitefish and Columbia Falls will make some noise this year, especially on the women’s side where the teams finished second and third respectively.
Whitefish underclassman Brooke Zetooney and Hailey Ells are a powerful scoring duo for the Bulldogs. Zetooney is the defending 100-meter champion and top returner in the 200 while both sprinters made the final in the 400. Ells also had a second and fourth place finish in the 300- and 100-hurdles respectively and scored in the high jump. Sophomore Isabelle Cook has top credentials in the 800-meter as well, making Whitefish a potential threat to dethrone Laurel for the team title.
Across the valley, Columbia Falls’ strength lies with its distance runners, who are coming off a team title in cross country. Hannah Sempf, the Class A cross-country champion, is a favorite to win the mile and two-mile distances, with the primary threat to those victories coming from teammate Siri Erickson, who was runner-up in both last season. Sophomore Ally Sempf will add points in the sprints.
There are a few defending champions to watch from the north valley as well, including Whitefish’s Gabe Menicke in the triple jump and Talon Holmquist in the shotput.
Bigfork graduated many upperclassmen over the last few years, but has a few returners who could be impactful. Sophomore Jack Jensen was a top finisher in cross country and was the fastest freshman miler in the state last year. Junior Izak Epperly enters the season as the runner-up in the 110-hurdles while Inga Turner, Zoey Albert and Scout Nadeau return as point-earning Valkyries.
Both Glacier and Columbia Falls are coming off three straight appearances at state softball tournaments, and their ranks are full of players who should keep the trend alive.
The Wolfpack emerged as the second seed out of the Western Conference in 2021 but for the second time in a row lost to Billings Senior in the first round of the state tournament. Glacier came back to win two consolation games, but couldn’t keep the momentum going, ending their tournament run to Western AA rival Sentinel. The Wolfpack return three all-state players: senior Sammie Labrum, and sophomores Kenadie Goudette and Ella Farrell. As a freshman, Farrell was a powerhouse on the mound, impressing coach Abby Connelly from the first opening weekend games last season by “holding some of the best hitters in the state powerless.”
In their last appearance at the state tournament, the Wildkats lost in the first round but clawed back to take two consolation bracket wins. Columbia Falls returns three all-conference players along with all-state junior Aspen Dawson, the team’s leading hitter. Sydney Mann will step up to take over as the lead pitcher for the Kats.
For the Wildkats, the top competition this year will come from their own conference, as south-valley rival Polson is coming off its first state championships in a decade.
In Montana, Class AA and A participants play golf in the fall while Class B and C are relegated to a spring season. Last year, Bigfork fielded just one boy, freshman Colin Wade, who tied for 10th at the state golf tournament.
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