State A Boys Soccer Final Preview: Can Billings Central Stop Whitefish’s Return to the Top?

Whitefish will aim to win its fifth title in six years on Saturday after last year's early tournament exit

By Brian Napier for 406mtsports.com
Libby Loggers goal keeper Thomas Roark dives to block at shot from Whitefish’s Preston McPherson at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Sept 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish boys soccer coach John Lacey relishes the chance to prepare against an opponent which can challenge his squad.It hasn’t happened often this year as the powerhouse Bulldogs, who have won more Class A boys soccer state championships (nine) than any other school, enter this weekend’s state title match with an unblemished 14-0 record.

But the team that awaits Whitefish at the end of its long haul across the state is one that Lacey expects to be more than capable of pushing the Bulldogs to the brink.

Whitefish boys head soccer coach John Lacey at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Sept 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Billings Central, back in the Class A final for the first time in over a decade, will host Whitefish for all the marbles at noon Saturday at the Amend Park turf field as only one of the class’ two remaining unbeaten teams will continue to be without a loss — and they’ll have the bonus of a shiny new first-place trophy to show off in their school with it.

The Rams (11-0-3) and the Bulldogs have met for the Class A title twice before in 2009 and 2012, splitting the meetings as Central captured its only state championship win in program history in the first matchup.Title No. 2 for the Rams could come against the same opponent 14 years later, but Whitefish with a win would secure a program milestone of its own in the meantime: becoming the first Montana boys soccer program to win 10 state championships.

It’s high stakes, and Lacey expects a game worthy of them on both sides of the pitch.

“I’m excited that it looks to me that we’re going to get a possession game,” Lacey said. “Not everybody that we get to play against during the season is capable of playing that kind of a game, and so I think Billings Central is going to give the fans, together with us, a brand of soccer that hopefully everybody finds this is worth watching, (that) this looks like a championship match.”

Saturday will be Whitefish’s 15th state title game and a return to the final after what Lacey called a “little bit of a surprising exit” from the state tourney a season ago, when the Bulldogs were beaten in the semifinals by Livingston following a stretch of five consecutive championship game appearances, winning four. Lacey said he expected the Bulldogs’ scoring prowess to be strong, and that’s been no problem for them thus far as they’ve scored 61 goals in all for an average of 4.4 per match. Where he’s been pleasantly surprised, however, is by how well Whitefish has been able to keep goals out, and he credited first-year starting goalkeeper Ethan Bourque’s emergence as a key factor in that regard.

Whitefish has only conceded six goals all season and none at all in its playoff matches, getting revenge over Livingston by a 2-0 margin in the quarterfinals before rolling past Lone Peak 5-0 in the semis. Senior Ryder Elliott, who Lacey noted is up to “double-digit” marks in both goals and assists, is often the talisman behind how and when the Bulldogs find the back of the net.

“The motivation (for this year) didn’t need to come because of a game that we lost,” Lacey said. “It was just that we get a new year and it’s time to go. Let’s continue what we’ve built and let’s build and let’s see where it takes us.”

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

Central, meanwhile, is well known for its domination on the Class A girls side, winning more soccer state championships (10) than any other program — boys or girls — in Montana history. Rams boys coach Nolan Trafton, who formerly coached both squads before stepping down to focus on the boys team in the offseason, helped lead the girls to their 10th title a season ago, in fact.He may coach the boys to one a year later, and on home turf, no less.

With a similarly potent offense (55 goals) and stout defense (eight goals allowed) to Whitefish, Central — which shut out both Polson (3-0) and Corvallis (2-0) in order in the playoffs to get to the title match — is fairly young with just three seniors seeing the pitch compared to the Bulldogs’ 11.

But two of the Rams’ seniors, Jack Milroy and Casey Rah, are rocks in Central’s lineup and among their most important players. Juniors Cole Bland (11 goals) and Luke Pankratz (10) both have the ability to bag goals on top of it all, and Amend Park — where Central hasn’t lost at in over two years — has been made into a fortress by the Rams.

Cold weather conditions projected for Saturday, likely being in the high teens to low 20s at kickoff, may ding Central’s home-pitch advantage a bit, but it’s not as if it’s the one having to make the 7-hour drive Whitefish is, either.

“It’s very exciting,” Trafton said. “Feels very well deserved for this program and for these boys. They’ve worked really hard getting back to this title game and representing their school. … None of us can achieve our goals individually, but together we can do it.”

Trafton additionally expects a level of quality and skill from both sides worthy of a state final, and as Central plans to roll with a possession-based style, too, whichever squad picks out their spots the best may also be the one holding the state championship trophy at the end of the match.

It’s been a long time since the Rams’ boys team has known what it’s like to do that. Saturday, they can find out once again — but no program knows exactly what to do in these types of situations more in Class A boys than Whitefish.

“(There will be) a lot of heart, a lot of back and forth,” Trafton said. “Two teams that want it and two teams that deserve it. I really think the two best teams are still playing, and they’ll meet on Saturday.”

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