Flathead Valley Prepares to Crown Class A Soccer Champions

With Whitefish and Columbia Falls facing off in the state final, a western Class A team will come away with the trophy for the first time since 2007

By Micah Drew
Delany Smith (9) of the Whitefish Bulldogs battles for the ball against the Billings Central Rams at the Class A state championship game at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Oct. 29, 2022. Billings beat Whitefish 2-1. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For the last 15 years, only two girls soccer teams have earned the Class A crown — Billings Central and Laurel. This year, for the first time since 2007, both of those teams made early exits from the state tournament.

Billings Central, last year’s champions, fell in the quarterfinals to the Whitefish Bulldogs, in a game that avenged last year’s 2-1 loss in the state final. Laurel was escorted out by the Bigfork Valkyries in the quarterfinals, a team that then lost a hard-fought semifinal to Columbia Falls.

Now, the Wildkats (12-1-2) and the Bulldogs (12-2-0) are set to face off at Smith Fields on Saturday to crown a new champion team.

The two teams split their games during the regular season indicating a fairly even matchup on deck for this weekend. The Beacon spoke to Wildkats head coach Thomas Clark and Bulldogs head coach Roland Benedict this week to get a sense of what each team is bringing to the pitch.

The Case for the Kats: Depth

Coach Clark is in his fifth year as head coach of the Wildkats and has seen his share of star players come through the program — Josie Windauer, who played for UM, and state record holder Maddie Robinson come to mind — but this is the best group he’s ever coached top to bottom.

“We’ve had star power in the past, but often without much depth behind them,” Clark said. “This year, the roster is filled with really good athletes and really great soccer players across the field, from our star players to the players coming off the bench. It lets us play a brand of soccer that dictates the way the game is going to go.”

Among the star power on the Wildkats side is senior Hope McAtee, whose 24 assists this season, and her current 71 career assists, are both all-class records. She’s also potted 25 goals of her own, making her the state’s top offensive player.

With McAtee, senior forward Josie Harris has put up 26 goals, while midfielder Kenzee West is a pitch-wide force, giving the Kats three aggressive offensive weapons to deploy on Saturday.

Clark also points to a crop of talented freshman who were quick to make an impact on the team this year, and added to the team’s expectation that they could compete for the state final.

There’s a clear difference in how the team has played this year, according to Clark. When in previous years the team has had to work hard defensively to create opportunities on the counteroffensive to score, this year the momentum has shifted to a fast-paced, aggressive offense that emphasizes possession and dominating the field.

Hope McAtee of Columbia Falls High School. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Case for the Dawgs: Experience

Benedict’s Bulldogs have been here before. They were here last year against Billings Central, a 2-1 loss. In 2020, the Bulldogs suffered an 3-2 loss in OT. For four seniors, this is the third appearance by the Dawgs in the state final, and with no freshman on the first team, all players have a hole left from last year’s loss.

“Every time we play in the state final, or play against a top team, that experience is beneficial to the program,” Benedict said. “It gives players a belief in what’s been done before, and a belief in what can be done again.”

Since that 2020 team, Benedict said that every year the girls have shown up stronger and more dangerous than the year before — a combination of talent, a fire lit from close encounters with glory, and mental fortitude. All three of those characteristics are clear in seniors Olivia Genovese and Izzie Cooke, and junior Delaney Smith, who lead Whitefish’s dynamic offense, as well as senior keeper Norah Schmidt, who Clark calls “one of the best keepers seen in the state of Montana.”

The teams have shown their prowess on the pitch, not just with their state tournament successes in recent seasons, but also in head-to-head matchups against their crosstown rivals. Whitefish has won five of the last six games against Columbia Falls, and that’s a record that inspires confidence in the players.

The Case for the Kats: Momentum

Sure, Whitefish might have a better head-to-head result in the last three seasons, but Columbia Falls took the rivalry crown in the last game of the regular season just two weeks ago, a 2-1 turning of the tides. Having that victory as a fresh memory will bolster the Kats and could be weighing on the Bulldogs.

“To win against Whitefish, in Whitefish, in the last regular game of the season, that’s really a catalyst that propelled us forward,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of confidence with the girls who now know they can do it again.”

On the flip side, Benedict spins that last loss as a good thing for his team, ensuring they don’t enter the state final overconfident.

“There’s an old adage that it’s tough to beat a team three times in a row, and that’s true, especially at this level,” Benedict said. “It’s humbling and it tells us they’re still dangerous.”

Thomas Clark, head soccer coach for the Columbia Falls Wildkats at a home game against the Bigfork Valkyries on Sept. 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Case for Both: Confidence and Belief  

Benedict said that both teams are uniquely positioned because they know their opponent. The regular season of Class A soccer keeps western and eastern teams apart, meaning that state tournament games often contain a lot of unknowns. In this instance, the teams have a split record and the two programs have similar styles, giving each coach, and indeed each player, a lot of insight leading into the final.

“It’s very rare for us to go into a state final knowing that we can win,” Benedict said. “We’ve done it before, so we don’t have to create the belief from scratch this time.”

There’s a big difference between believing a team can win, and knowing a team can win, according to Benedict, and he’s seen the mental shift in his athletes throughout the season toward knowing they can overcome anything on the pitch. But that same winning knowledge applies to every player and coach and fan wearing blue on Saturday.

Fans are in for a good matchup this weekend. The two teams play similar, dynamic, aggressive offense and are used to high scoring games.

“The situation is pretty unique to the two teams playing in the final,” Clark said. “It’s going to be a chess match.”

Benedict said that the goal with the team is to always be able to end the team feeling they played to the highest standard possible.

“Our program mantra over the last four years is to play the game with bravery courage and joy,” he said. “If we do those three things, we’ll be successful whether it’s a win or a loss. At the end of the day, we want to be able to throw our hands up and say ‘we did enough to win’ no matter the outcome.”

The Class A state soccer final will take place at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Oct. 26 at 2:30 p.m..  

This article initially published the boys Class A game time and has been corrected.

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