‘Front of the Line’

The Bulldogs are in the hunt for a record fifth straight, and 10th overall, state soccer title with a crop of athletes that may have the makings of the best class yet

By Micah Drew
Libby Loggers goal keeper Thomas Roark dives to block at shot from Whitefish’s Preston McPherson at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Sept 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The counter keeps ticking upwards. Every day, every game, every state championship without the Whitefish Bulldogs recording a loss cements the team’s legacy as the greatest in Montana soccer history. It’s an unparalleled streak — 1,782 days, as of this publication, since the Bulldogs lost a soccer match, the 2017 state final to Belgrade. 

One can imagine that the current class of junior and senior starters on the team might feel the weight of those numbers on their green-clad shoulders as they take the field each week, but head coach John Lacey doesn’t let his players dwell on the past. 

“What we talk about here is that it’s your time,” Lacey said. “The phrase we use is ‘front of the line.’ In soccer you spend 80 minutes running around and might not touch the ball for 79 and a half minutes, but there will be one moment when you’re at the front of the line.”

“We prepare for the moment at the front of the line — it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, what matters is that you’re ready when it’s your moment.”

  Last year, the moment on the line was the deciding factor in the state championship. In the 80th minute, keeper Will Peppmeier was faced with a penalty kick that could have sent the game into overtime, but he was ready when that moment came. 

Now, senior Ethan Schott is filling big shoes in the goal, and is hard at work preparing for his own moment. 

“Whitefish keepers don’t have to do much a lot of the time, but the few times they’re called up to perform, they need to come up big,” Lacey said. “Schott’s been preparing, physically he looks good and hopefully he’ll be ready mentally as well when the tests do come.”

Whitefish boys head soccer coach John Lacey at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Sept 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The early start to the Bulldogs’ 2022 campaign has not yet brought any tests. So far with six games played, the team has added six wins to the streak, scored 42 goals and allowed just one in return. 

The first test, and arguably one of the most anticipated games of the year comes on Sept. 15, when Whitefish will welcome Columbia Falls for the first rematch of last year’s state final. The Wildcats are also off to an undefeated start and returned all but three of last year’s roster

The Bulldogs on the other hand graduated a class of 10 seniors, but added 14 newcomers, an infusion of young energy and, of course, solid soccer players. 

In leadership roles for the Bulldogs are Schott and senior defenders Jack Peppmeier and Teague McDonald. The ever-aggressive offense the Bulldogs are known for is led by juniors Ryder Elliott and Collin Lyman and Sam Dow, but no less than 13 Bulldogs have found the back of the net so far this season. 

“We’re playing the same style of soccer we always do, but if there’s any change it’s that we’re spreading things around more,” Lacey said, adding that there isn’t a singular player scoring a majority of goals like there has been the last three years in Gabe Menicke and Brandon Mendoza. 

“Our hope is that the previous classes have done a good job showing us how to be ready when it matters, and hopefully now we’re doing the same thing for the guys who are younger than us,” Lacey said. “We feel good about our ability to play our best soccer in October.”

Anyone who was able to watch the last two state finals — Bulldogs vs. Wildcats — knows that Thursday’s matchup between the teams will be the best soccer game in the state this week

“Every time we play Columbia Falls, I fully expect they’re going to make us play our best soccer,” Lacey said. “There’s a familiarity that comes with playing them. In the spring during club soccer we spend so much time on the same fields together.”

“For all but three days a year, we can support each other, and then not be ashamed when the time comes to go at it against each other,” Lacey added. “And I’m not ashamed to say that I hope we win it. No one on this team wants this thing to go down this week.”

Griffin Gunlikson of the Whitefish Bulldogs battles for the ball with Cylis Goddard of the Libby Loggers at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Sept 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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