Reigning Cats or Dawgs? Who Will End Up On Top of Class A Soccer This Year?

Columbia Falls and Whitefish have dominated Class A soccer for five years, and the two schools’ rivalry is off to another fiery start this season

By Micah Drew
Kai Golan of the Columbia Falls Wildcats takes the ball upfield against the Park High Rangers during the Class A state championship game at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 29, 2022. The Wildcats won 5-2. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Sept. 12, Whitefish Bulldogs were celebrating as if they’d won a state soccer championship. They hadn’t — it’s been more than a year since their dynastic four-year streak came to an end — but they’d pulled off a 4-3 win over Columbia Falls on Wildcats turf.

“It says something that beating us prompts that kind of celebration,” Columbia Falls head coach O’Brien Byrd said. “And I’ll tell you, our guys did not like that one bit.”

Byrd says that everyone — players, coaches, parents, inquiring journalists — is talking about beating Columbia Falls, or the significance of even netting a single goal against the 2022 champions.

“We talk about it every single day,” Byrd said. “We have something special that we’re protecting this season. That championships trophy hasn’t left our hallways yet.”

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

For the last five years, the locus of power in Class A boys soccer has rested just off of the stretch of Montana Highway 40 across the northern Flathead Valley that links Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

The two dynamic high school programs have a long-intertwined history. The teams have faced each other four times in state finals — Columbia Falls winning in 2001 and 2003 — and combined for 13 of 22 state titles. Byrd coached at Whitefish from 2003-2014 when he left to take over the Columbia Falls program, and players from both teams mix and mingle during the competitive club soccer season.

During a dynastic run from 2018-2021, the Bulldogs became the first team in state history to win four championships in a row, graduating a class of senior players without a single loss on their high school records.

The 2020 and 2021 finals pitted the Bulldogs against the Wildcats. In consecutive title games, the Bulldogs rolled over the Cats for the victory, then barely held them off the following year.

Then, in 2022, the power dynamic shifted. Twice during the regular season, the Wildcats broke down the dynasty, delivering the first loss to the Bulldogs since 2017. During the playoffs, some in-game mistakes sent Whitefish home early, while Columbia Falls easily defeated Park County for their first title in 17 years.

That win brings some extra weight to the shoulders of the current Columbia Falls roster while placing a target on their backs, but Byrd feels the team has only risen to the challenge.

“The minute the state final ended last year, we knew which guys were coming back, who the incoming freshmen were, which up and coming JV-ers would be with us, and honestly we were really confident even then in the new young group,” Byrd said, adding that nine of the team’s 11 starters graduated last year.

Among the returners is senior Kai Golan, one of the state’s best all-around players who already has 11 goals this season. And while it’s great to have individual players who can run the field almost on their own, Byrd says this iteration of the Wildcats no longer relies on individual brilliance. The team, cohesively, is just as brilliant.

“This is the highest-level team I’ve ever coached, and yet we only have two starting seniors,” Byrd said. “These guys can put together better parts to a game, better training sessions than I’ve seen in my last three years with this program.”

That pronouncement, in addition to the trophy the players walk by each day on the way to class, has spawned a “quiet confidence” that Byrd says will continue manifesting throughout the season as the Cats aim to defend their title.

Ryder Elliot of the Whitefish Bulldogs lines up for a shot during the state soccer championship game against the Columbia Falls Wildcats in Whitefish on Oct. 30, 2021. The Bulldogs won 3-2. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Previous seasons, however, are no indication of future success, something Whitefish head coach John Lacey knows well. He saw the Bulldogs win 63 straight games before they fell to Columbia Falls last year.

“Last year was of course its own year. We had a very young team, and they learned a lot, played great soccer and had a lot of success, but they were also unlucky on a day we couldn’t afford to be,” Lacey said. “In my words, I look at every game as no team deserves anything based on their record.”

Lacey is currently coaching the largest team he’s ever had, which matches reports of Whitefish’s enrollment reaching record numbers this fall. Unlike last year, there’s a higher number of upper classmen on the pitch, giving the Bulldogs the experience that was lacking last year. With that, Lacey says there’s a responsibility among the senior class to prepare the team behind them, more so than just focusing on leaving their own legacy on the field.

“We’ve spent more time this year emphasizing this program as a whole and what it means to be a part of it. We make it about more than just their time to grab a title, and I believe that’s made these older kids better understand what leadership is,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, we want to win, we want to score goals and play great soccer, but their place in the program needs to be about more than just wins and losses.”

Of course, the wins and losses are nice, and the Bulldogs currently have a perfect record on the season. The team flashed the first few games with huge scoring margins, before Columbia Falls presented the first true test.

“We always know they’ll push us to play our very best soccer, and they did it again,” Lacey said. “The environment was fantastic, our boys stood up and did what they needed to do. But we’re not defining our season by one September win.”

The 4-3 victory over the defending champions was certainly a confidence boost for the players. But Lacey continues to push his philosophy that every player, no matter how deep on the bench, must prepare for “their time on the line,” understanding that at any moment, circumstances can drastically change for a team.

“I don’t want my guys going in with any expectation, or thinking we deserve anything,” he said. “What boys have done in previous years to lift up titles doesn’t do anything for us now. It’s a high standard we hold, but no one will shy away from that.”

Meanwhile, Byrd says the rivalry game uncovered a few weaknesses for the Wildcats — Whitefish’s Ryder Elliot scored in the first minute, capsizing the game’s momentum almost instantly — but the team understands the need to survive those moments when things aren’t going right.

“It takes a team like Whitefish to expose those blips in our game, but by the end of it the guys got their mojo back,” Byrd said. “We have three weeks to lock in the polished identity of the Wildcats, and that’s the one we want to be dead set on as we go charging into the playoffs.”

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