After close calls in 2020 and 2022, the Whitefish Bulldogs finally hoisted the Class A state soccer championship trophy on Saturday following a 3-1 victory over the Columbia Falls Wildkats.
The win adds a third title to the program’s storied history, which has seen the Bulldogs in the championships match seven times since 2006, the last time they emerged on top.
“They always say you’re trying to break through a glass ceiling, but I felt like it was a titanium wall we were trying to get through,” Whitefish coach Roland Benedict said following the match. “It feels amazing.”
After splitting their two regular season matches, the cross-valley rivals entered Saturday’s final evenly matched.
For the first 30 minute of the game, Columbia Falls dominated possession, pinning Whitefish to their half of the field. The Wildkats have an aggressive offense — one that’s netted 85 goals this season — led by Josie Harris and Hope McAtee, but numerous shots on goal either missed their mark or were stopped by Bulldogs keeper Norah Schmidt.
The tide turned in the waning minute of the first half on a corner kick by Whitefish sophomore Taylor Dorvall. Senior Olivia Genovese connected with the ball, straightlining it past the Kats defense in the 34th minute.
“That shift in momentum, it’s something that happens when you are able to get a little bit of belief,” Benedict said. “We talked about belief and knowing —once we got the goal, we knew we could do it. We’re over the hump, it’s in the back of the net. Alright, let’s go get another one. You start to get hungry for another opportunity to score.”
The hunger was immediately palpable on the pitch. With barely any time to reset, the Bulldogs were back across the field and a shot from Isabelle Cooke inside the final two minutes gave Whitefish a 2-0 lead going into the half.
“The game’s still there for you,” Columbia Falls coach Thomas Clark told his team during the halftime huddle. “It got harder, for sure after the second goal, but it’s still there for you to take.”
Meanwhile, the green-clad players huddled on the field were discussing how to hold on to their lead. They emerged with one coherent thought — the next goal would determine the momentum for the last 40 minutes of the state championships.
After the whistle blew to start the second half, it only took about 30 seconds for the Bulldogs to break away down the field, with junior Delaney Smith potting a third goal.
“As soon as we put that one away, I just knew we were going to win,” senior keeper Norah Schmidt said.
Columbia Falls never stopped fighting, and got on the board with a goal from Josie Harris, but couldn’t claw back from their deficit.
“It’s going to be a big lesson for them on how to handle adversity, especially because I think to concede the third goal at the beginning of the second half just kills you,” Clark said. “We were right in it the entire game and on a different day it goes a different way. But a huge credit to Whitefish. I’ve said it before, they’re very well coached. They’ve got a great group of seniors that will be missed by their program and they got it done today.”
“I think a big thing here was experience,” coach Benedict said. “The team’s been here before, they know what it takes and they knew how to be patient. They knew they could beat us, we knew we could beat them, and it just came down to being mentally prepared, physically prepared and prepared to win that battle.”
“Every single class we’ve had has laid the foundation for the team to play the way that they played today and be able to win this game,” he added.
Benedict said the team practiced outside all week preparing for the wintry conditions that saw temperatures hovering in the mid-20s. However, the cold conditions didn’t dampen the game play, or the celebrations afterwards.
“To be honest, I can’t really process it,” Schmidt said, after posing for dozens of photos with her teammates, coaches, and championship trophy. “It doesn’t feel like it’s over, I feel like I have practice on Monday. But I’m very happy, it just doesn’t feel real yet.”
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