For five straight years the Class A State Soccer final has been won by a team from the Flathead Valley, a streak unlikely to end this year. Last year, Columbia Falls emerged as the new kings of Montana soccer with a 5-2 win over Livingston. Whitefish, which had a four-year dynastic stranglehold on the podium, lost to the Rangers in the semifinal, but both local teams are looking to renew their rivalry and return to the state final.
The Wildcats lost 10 seniors from their starting lineup — nine of whom earned all-state or all-conference accolades last year, putting the team at a bit of an experiential disadvantage this season as head coach O’Brien Byrd builds a new championship-version of the squad. One of the biggest losses is keeper Bryce Dunham, who tied the school record in shutouts last season and allowed just three goals during the regular season.
The bright spot for Columbia Falls is the return of Kai Golan for his senior year. According to coach Byrd, Golan is “arguably the best offensive player in the state and displays a level of athleticism and competitiveness on the pitch that’s nearly unmatched.”
Meanwhile, across the valley there is a Bulldogs team eager to erase a blemish from an otherwise perfect last five seasons of soccer. Senior Ryder Elliot was the team’s top scorer last year and will lead a now-experienced team that only lost three seniors, though that includes keeper Ethan Schott. In keeping with coach John Lacey’s strategy of playing deep in his lineup, the roster features 22 underclassmen.
On the girls’ side, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Bigfork are looking to build off their state tournament appearances in 2022, which saw the Bulldogs fall 2-1 in the state final, while Columbia Falls bowed out in the semis.
Whitefish will be led by seniors Olivia Genovese and Isabelle Cooke, both returning all-state selections. Genovese scored 24 goals for the Bulldogs last year and will take the pitch backed up by several talented junior forwards including Delaney Smith.
Columbia Falls will be led by top offensive talent Hope McAtee, one of the state’s all-time leaders in assists. Last year, McAtee complemented 21 assists with 23 goals and will aid the Wildkats’ pursuit of an appearance in the final.
The Valkyries are in a unique position among Bigfork sports teams, as the soccer team has competed at the Class A level for years and won’t undergo an adjustment period. The Bigfork trio of Danika Bucklin, Braeden Gunlock and Paeten Gunlock will keep the Valkyries in the mix.
Now, three seasons removed of the program’s first state championship, the Glacier girls team is once again looking to find its synergy under a new coach, former Carroll College coach Doug Mello.
The Wolfpack returns senior all-state forward Reagan Brisendine, who, as a freshman, scored the winning goal in the state final. In last season’s final match of the fall season, Reagan scored eight goals against Butte, tying the MHSA reported record for single-game goals, and breaking the Glacier school record with 33 goals on the season. The Wolfpack is likely to build an aggressive offense around Brisendine’s final prep season, with hopes of making the state tournament.
On the boys’ side, the Wolfpack brings back five all-conference players, led by Hans Coggins, an all-state selection last year when the team made a quarter-final exit from the state tournament. Expect coach Ryan Billiet to bring the experienced squad back to top form.
Over at Flathead, both the Braves and Bravettes are in their second year with coaches Alejandro Calderon and Zach Brenneman, respectively. Calderon already made an impact with the Braves, taking a single-win 2021 team and earning a state tournament appearance. The Bravettes also had a first-round showing in last year’s tournament.
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