BILLINGS — It’s not as if members of the Whitefish boys soccer program haven’t enjoyed lifting up a state championship trophy before.
But the one the Bulldogs won on Saturday? That one in particular has a little bit of extra meaning behind it.
First and foremost, Whitefish became Montana’s first boys high school program to win 10 state championships after it defeated Billings Central 1-0 on Saturday in the Class A boys soccer final at Amend Park.
And second, the feat came with an unblemished 15-0 record on the season, making the Bulldogs (who were already Class A’s most successful boys team ever entering the weekend) now level with Central’s girls team for the most state titles from a single soccer program in Montana High School Association history.
A perfect 10, if you will.
And despite what the Bulldogs’ record might indicate on the surface, their latest title was not handed to them.
Central (11-1-3), back in the final for the first time since 2012, hung tough and had its moments. A tense first half saw the Rams grow into the match and frequently win set-pieces in Whitefish’s half as halftime drew near, doing a solid job of sending numbers forward and being efficient with them.
Though few chances in the first 40 minutes gave the Bulldogs much trouble, it was the looming threat of a Central goal — and the potential for it to capture just its second boys soccer title ever — that had it looking like the more threatening side heading into the break.
“I think we won in about every category that you could except for the one that matters most, and that’s the score,” Rams coach Nolan Trafton, who coached Central’s girls to their 10th state title a year ago before moving on to coach only the boys in the offseason, said. “I really feel like we played a great 80 minutes of soccer and forced Whitefish to play a little different style than they’re used to.”
Those second-half adjustments the Bulldogs made at the break, however, were crucial to the match’s final result.
Whitefish began to control possession much more in the second half, rolling together stretches of dangerous plays that stretched the Rams’ defense. Halfway through the second half, the breakthrough that the Bulldogs sought as a result of their tactical changes finally happened.
A long ball toward the direction of McPherson on the right side of goal found his feet, and the No. 9 slotted past Central’s goalkeeper and into the opposite corner with exactly 20 minutes left on the clock to put Whitefish on the board and break the tension in a frigid state final.
“We were just waiting for that big breakthrough moment, and then I luckily got the opportunity to get it,” McPherson said. “I was definitely grateful for that and (it) took a lot of weight off of the shoulders as we got the momentum. We could play our own game after that.”
Central hurled players forward in the match’s final stanza in an attempt to tie it, but it was unable to find an equalizer on a stingy Whitefish defense — which didn’t allow in a single goal throughout the postseason — and in front of a home crowd in cold temperatures hovering around the low to mid 20s.
Lacey has been through enough cutthroat matches to know that his team’s goal didn’t guarantee safety, especially after Whitefish missed an open-net, short-range chance about 10 minutes later that would’ve doubled its lead and slammed the door shut.
But once the final whistle blew, Lacey and the rest of the Bulldogs were able to relax and celebrate another job well done in a state championship match.
“That’s when you start watching the clock,” Lacey joked, referring to when his team scored. “We could’ve had a second one down here at the end; those goals are the kinds of goals we’re used to having, we’re not used to having the big breakaway-type ones. But either way, obviously … there’s no such thing as a bad goal.”
Lacey credited the generations of Whitefish soccer royalty that has helped enable the Bulldogs to reach the double-digit state championship plateau, and their success is a major reason why it’ll be a long time before Whitefish is (if ever) overtaken on the class’ boys soccer totem pole. Flathead Valley rival Columbia Falls is next closest in Class A crowns with four, and no program after that has more than two to its name.
That drive for excellence and push to make it back to the top has resulted in 10 seniors who played for the Bulldogs this season getting to end their careers exactly as they started them — holding a state championship trophy aloft.
“There’s a big commitment to success here at Whitefish,” McPherson said. “Coach Lacey’s program has been very successful, and developmentally-wise, I’ve grown so much these last two years. That’s a big part (of it), from the seniors just being the mentors to everyone else.”
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