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Soccer

Third Time’s the Charm

The Columbia Falls Wildcats came out on top during their third straight appearance in the Class A soccer championships

By Micah Drew
The Columbia Falls Wildcats celebrate their 5-2 win over The Park High Rangers in the Class A state soccer championship at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When Columbia Falls last won a state soccer championship, the iPhone hadn’t been invented. Seventeen boys on the current roster had yet to be born. 

For five years Montana boys Class A soccer has been dominated by a team from the Flathead Valley. That trend continued last weekend, but the locus of power shifted seven miles to the east. 

On Oct. 29, the Columbia Falls Wildcats hosted the state soccer final, and for the first time since 2016, the game didn’t feature the Whitefish Bulldogs.

  “In Whitefish, everyone knows about the legacy, the storied history of that team. They grew up with it,” said Columbia Falls coach O’Brien Byrd. “No one had won a championships since these boys were born. We had to get them to manifest this great thing, this great accomplishment out of nothing.”

The new undisputed kings of Montana soccer are the black-clad Wildcats, who put away Livingston 5-2 in Saturday’s state final. The title was the program’s fourth, and the first since a 2-1 overtime victory against Billings Central in 2005.

“Before the whistle, all 11 of the starting boys were smiling,” Byrd said. “They played so freely, with an urgency as if they were playing for their lives, but once we started scoring, it was just bang, bang, bang.”

The Columbia Falls Wildcats celebrate their 5-2 win over The Park High Rangers in the Class A state soccer championship at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Columbia Falls has been an emerging championship-caliber program for years, dwarfed only by the dynasty of arch-rival Whitefish. The last two state finals have pitted the two Flathead Valley schools against each other. Whitefish won 3-0 in 2020, and a close 3-2 match last fall. This season however, the Wildcats made a statement early on by ending the Bulldogs’ four-year winning streak, making them a clear favorite for the title. 

“To be honest, they struggled a bit with the pressure, with their self-confidence,” Byrd said. “Everyone was telling them they’re the best — their coaches, their moms, their teachers. It’s something you can’t quite believe until you do it.”

From the starting whistle on Saturday, the Wildcats took control of the game, spending the majority of the first half in Ranger territory and finding the back of the net within the first 10 minutes. Livingston players hardly managed to touch the ball during the game’s first 40 minutes.

Kai Golan of the Columbia Falls Wildcats sends the ball past Park High Rangers’ keeper Isaac Winfrey during the Class A state soccer championship game at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 29, 2022. The Wildcats won 5-2. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Junior striker Kai Golan scored three of Columbia Falls’ four first-half goals, an impressive feat after a year of rehabbing a broken back suffered during last year’s championships match. 

Byrd said the 4-0 lead at the half was when he knew the game’s outcome was a given. During the second half he substituted his entire bench onto the field, giving them the experience of a championship game. Even third-string keeper Rafe Rusche got playing time, making five saves in the game’s closing minutes. 

Park’s first goal came nine minutes into the second half but was immediately answered by Wildcats senior Finley Sundberg, the state’s leading scorer this season. The Rangers’ only other goal was made in the final 15 minutes. 

Finley Sundberg of the Columbia Falls Wildcats takes a shot at the goal against the Park High Rangers during the Class A state soccer championship game at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 29, 2022. The Wildcats won 5-2. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“There’s so much emotion it’s crazy. No feelings can describe it. Taking ‘L’ after ‘L’ in the championship to the rival school, it sucks,” Golan told 406mtsports.com amid a giant postgame scrum mid-pitch. “Now that we are the state champions, it feels great. I didn’t want to lose this game. I wasn’t going to lose this game.”

While fans and players would have loved to see a third straight rematch against Whitefish, Byrd said he was glad the team drew a different opponent, alleviating what would have been an extra layer of pressure. Instead, the Bulldogs players were in attendance on the sidelines, along with the Glacier boys soccer team, lending their support to the newest iteration of Flathead Valley champions. 

“That’s the kind of support you don’t see in any other sport,” Byrd said. “We’re finally on top, and everyone wanted to be there to watch us do it.”

Columbia Falls Wildcats coach O’Brien Byrd celebrates the team’s 5-2 win over the Park High Rangers for the Class A state soccer tournament at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

See more photos from the game in this gallery

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