The intent was clear from the outset. The Columbia Falls boys soccer team journeyed seven miles across the valley to put a dent in Whitefish’s soccer legacy.
It took them 76 minutes to do so.
“It’s different for me as a coach than for the players,” Columbia Falls coach O’Brien Byrd said after the Wildcats’ 2-1 win. “For me it’s just this massive sigh of relief. The players, their jubilation is like they won the World Cup and as it should be.”
The last team to hand the Bulldogs a loss was Belgrade, a 4-0 shutout during the 2017 Class A title game. Since then, the Dawgs have been on what might be the longest win streak in Montana history — four-plus seasons, 63 games, and four state titles.
Every year, the graduation of a reigning class of champion soccer players prompts questions about whether the team’s latest iteration will be just as strong. For four seasons the Bulldogs have answered that question with goals, wins and a seamless transition from championship squad to championship squad.
This season, however, the transition is solid but not seamless. And if there WAS one team in the state waiting for the opportunity to pounce, it’s the Wildcats.
While the Bulldogs graduated 10 seniors, the Wildcats only lost one starter and the squad’s experience was visible.
“They were a pretty good team last year, but the difference to this year is huge,” Byrd said. “On the field they look so strong, relaxed and faster.”
Just 10 minutes into the game, the Wildcats got on the board first with a goal by Kai Golan. The Bulldogs were momentarily taken aback — trailing in a soccer game is such a rare occurrence for them — but soon returned to their aggressive offensive play.
Just before the half, the equalizer came when Whitefish junior Sam Dow lasered a free kick into the upper corner of the net.
During the half, the two teams’ demeanors played out differently. Whiteish coach John Lacey spoke to his team very practically, pointing out missed opportunities and detailing changes to their approach on defense.
“Everybody’s got more ground to cover with this team,” Lacey said. “There are guys on that team where if you give them any space, they’ll take a turn and be gone from you before you know it.”
Fifty yards away, Byrd’s rhetoric was fiery and the Wildcats’ energy was visible.
“Go after these guys, they’re scared, I promise you,” he said. “Forty more minutes and it’s a fun bus ride home. It’s been a long time boys, let’s end it.”
Columbia Falls dominated possession during the second half. Shots on goal came more often, and from farther out, and the clock ticked down. With just four minutes left, the end came with blink-and-you-missed it scramble after Wildcats senior Finley Sundberg took a shot from inside the box and the ball pinballed.
Wildcat cleat — goalie glove — Wildcat cleat — goalie glove— Wildcat cleat — defender shin — Wildcat head — net.
“The ball was loose in the box and I just remember looking off, seeing the ball out of the corner of my eye and just making a wild header,” Golan said of his second goal of the game. “Then I was sitting there watching it, praying for it to go in and it barely got inside the post.”
The elation began then and escalated when the final whistle blew shortly after.
“I think what we saw today was a mature group of senior players who really wanted this,” Whitefish coach Lacey said after the game. “Our team hasn’t been in these competitive environments in the same way because we have a lot of younger players. I know that’s part of the cycle, the boys know it, everyone knows it, and it’s not something we’re going to apologize for.”
Debriefing his team, Lacey reminded the Bulldogs that they train to play their best soccer in October and framed the day as the biggest learning experience the players will get all season.
“We can still win five straight,” Whitefish keeper Ethan Schott added.
The Bulldogs cleared off the pitch field before the Wildcats finished celebrating with their supporters. After several rounds of primal screams, team photos and congratulatory hugs, the team boarded their blue bus for the journey home.
“That streak and that dynasty plays such a big role in these guys’ fragile psyches, because for four years, they’re unbeatable,” Byrd said. “We can’t beat them no matter how hard we try, no matter how coach prepares them with tactics, it’s been such a mental roadblock.”
“I tell you what, we’re going to enjoy the heck out of tonight.” Byrd added. “We’re going to live in the moment, and tomorrow we’re going to talk about it, reboot and get back to work.”
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