Bigfork: A Class A Act

The Vikings and Valkyries dropped to Class B in 2009 due to low enrollment numbers, but starting in the fall of 2023, Bigfork will rejoin Class A for all sporting events

By Micah Drew
George Bucklin of the Bigfork Vikings runs the ball against the Florence Falcons in the Class B football final on Nov. 20, 2021. The Vikings lost 42-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In April 2022, the Montana High School Association (MHSA) voted on a classification realignment that moved Bigfork High School up to Class A for athletics and activities because of increasing enrollment figures. The change will occur beginning with the fall season, meaning Bigfork is in the middle of its swan song in Class B athletics, and not for the first time. In 1998, the school moved from Class B to Class A after years of population growth, but in 2009 the school dropped back down due to low enrollment figures. 

The current enrollment guidelines for Class A are between 301 and 800 students. Class AA is 801 and above, Class B is 101-300 and Class C is 100 and below. Class C has the most schools, followed by Class B, then A and finally AA.

Classification alignments by MHSA are based on two years of enrollment figures and schools have a chance to petition against changing classifications if they’re within 10% of an enrollment number.  

Last spring, Bigfork had 335 students, making it the largest school in the league by more than 50 students. It will be larger than four Class A schools — including private Butte Central, which has repeatedly petitioned to stay in Class A despite having less than 100 students and generally faring well in athletic competition. By comparison, Columbia Falls and Whitefish are the largest and third-largest Class A schools with 656 and 572 students, respectively. 

Matt Porrovecchio, the activities director at Bigfork, previously served in the role when the school made its first jump up to Class A. 

“The nuts and bolts of the administrative work doesn’t change a lot,” Porrovecchio said. “On the relationships side, we’ve formed some really great friendships in Class B — had some great battles and fun rivalries. I have no doubt we will maintain the connections in B, but we’ll pick up right where we left off in Class A.”

Currently, the closest conference school to Bigfork is St. Ignatius, 58 miles south and around Flathead Lake. Now, as part of the Northwest A conference, Bigfork will cut down on some travel time by regularly playing cross-valley rivals Columbia Falls and Whitefish, just 26 and 34 miles north, respectively. 

“We haven’t really lost touch with the Northwest A schools over the last decade,” Porrovecchio said, pointing out that soccer plays in Class A (there is no Class B soccer), and track and tennis tournaments regularly feature schools of all classifications. “We’ve competed with bigger schools throughout our run in B. It’s always been fun as a B school to beat an A school, but now those games will take on different meaning.”

Bigfork cross country runners at practice on Sept. 1, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bigfork cross country coach, Ryan Nollan, who guided the Vikings to the 2021 Class B state title in his first year at the helm, said he expects the biggest shift for athletes will be on the mental side. 

“We’re going to have to think through the motivation factor for kids,” Nollan, who is also the district psychologist, said. “When you’re the biggest Class B school, you come into each season knowing you’re going to be competitive. With the teenage psyche in sport, if they come in thinking they might not be on top, we’ll have to figure out how to motivate them.” 

With lower enrollment over the last few years, Bigfork has at times struggled to field scoring teams for cross country. The last two years, there have been less than five Valkyries competing at state. 

“Bigfork has a history of fast individuals, but as a team, that’s not what we’ve traditionally been strongest at,” Nollan said. “I think we’ll be able to start recruiting more athletes from earlier ages and start fielding competitive teams.”

Nollan said he’s looking forward to increasing the camaraderie and friendships between the valley’s runners now that Bigfork will be competing in the same league as half the valley’s other schools, and he’ll also have a chance to better connect with the local coaches. 

Bigfork runner Jack Jensen on Nov. 10, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Cortnee Gunlock, the Valkyries basketball coach whose girls team took third in the Class B tournament last year, the highest finish in program history, said she’s also a little worried about depth charts in the first years as a Class A school.

“There’s going to be a bit more pressure to develop younger athletes in the off season to get them ready to compete at that varsity level,” Gunlock said. “But no matter which classification you’re in, it’s about whomever has more talent in a given year. We’ve been able to match up against Class A schools really well over the years, but there’s also great athletes in our league too.”

Following the basketball team’s success last winter, Gunlock had 10 freshmen come out for this season — the most she’s seen as a coach — which has demonstrated that a successful program at any level will turn out interested athletes. 

“I haven’t talked to the girls about next year, but they’re aware it’s the last time in Class B,” she said. “Like all Bigfork sports, there’s a bit of pressure that if we’re going to win state, this is the year to do it.”

Porrovecchio said that regardless of classification, it’s most important that the school’s values remain top of mind. 

“Our aim is to find great coaches and put them with great kids and let them have great experiences,” Porrovecchio said. “I want our kids to be competitive — I love winning, I love post-season play — but in the end I just want them to be healthy, happy, better young adults.”

“I’ll give up any classification trophy for that.”

Isak Epperly of the Bigfork Vikings charges toward the basket during the district 7B semifinal against the St. Ignatius Bulldogs in Bigfork on Feb. 20, 2020. The Vikings fell to the Bulldogs 47-44. the Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon