2024 Flathead Valley Winter Sports Preview

Local prep athletes again poised for statewide notoriety during winter seasons

By Micah Drew
Braeden Gunlock of the Bigfork Valkyries dribbles past the Troy Lady Trojans defense in Bigfork on Feb. 2, 2023. Bigfork won 98-18. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Athletes in the Flathead Valley have long excelled at kicking off the winter seasons strong, and this year should be no exception. From perennial powerhouses — the Flathead wrestlers — to newcomers looking to make waves — the Bigfork Valkyries are ready to take on Class A after capping their Class B tenure with an undefeated season in basketball — there’s myriad storylines to keep an eye on this winter.


Wrestlers compete during the dual match between Whitefish High School and Columbia Falls High School. Beacon file photo

Head coach: Jeff Thompson
2022-23 postseason (boys): 2nd at state
2022-23 postseason (girls): 3rd at state
Key wrestlers: Anders Thompson, Sr., Sawyer Troupe, Sr., Dane Lake, Jr., Gunnar Thompson, Sr., Jr., Alivia Rinehart, So., Lucille Libby, Jr., Brinly Youso, So., Bella Downing, So.

Can they get back on top? Flathead High School completed back-to-back sweeps in both the boys and girls state tournaments in 2021 and 2022 but broke their streaks last season. There’s no reason to expect the Brave Brawlers to tackle the season with anything other than a deep-seeded motivation to bring the trophies back to Kalispell. So far, the Braves won the Mining City Duals for the third straight year last weekend, while the Bravettes lost their home invitational to defending champion Billings Senior.

Head coach: Ross Dankers
2022-23 postseason (boys): 11th at state
2022-23 postseason (girls): 4th at state
Key wrestlers: Kaleb Shine, Sr., Mark Ahner, sr., Brooke Yeadon, Jr., Kaura Coles, So., Katelyn Sphuler, So.

Coles made history last year as the first state champion for the Wolfpack, and a strong crew of wrestlers behind the returning champion could give Glacier an opening to continue moving up the state ranks.

Head coach: Jessie Schaeffer
2022-23 postseason (boys): 1st at state
2022-23 postseason (girls): 16th at state
Key wrestlers: Cash Byrd, Sr., Traic Fainter, Sr., Billy Gustafson, Sr., Jaelynn Nace, So.

Everything finally clicked for the Wildcats last year as they sent nine wrestlers to the semifinals and scored 201 points for victory. There will be some rebuilding after graduating key mat stars on the boys side. Columbia Falls will field a fuller girls team this season, with 13 on the roster.

Head coach: Danny Neff
2022-23 postseason (boys): 18th at state
2022-23 postseason (girls): 38th at state
Key wrestlers: Jackson Dorvall, Sr., Henry Bennetts, Sr., Sam Bennetts, So.

The Bulldogs continue to expand their girls team and Sam Bennetts comes in with veteran experience for the Bulldogs having competed in the state tournament last year.

Head coach: Shawn Hall
2022-23 postseason: 24th at state
Key wrestlers: Lyrik Fainter, Fr., Diego Rodriguez, Sr., Michael McCarty, Fr., Evan Tidwell, Sr.

The Vikings wrestling program has continued its growth and success over the years, making huge jumps from five years ago when just one athlete qualified for state. Now they have to make the biggest jump, with team competing against Class A competition this year.   

Boys Basketball

A basketball player holds a basketball. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Head coach: Dan Trageser
2022-23 record: 1-19 (1-13 Western AA)
Key players: Lyric Ersland, Gabe Sims, Jordan Griffin, Korbin Eaton

With a new coach, the Braves will seek to move up from the bottom of the league this year. However, a transfer of some top Flathead ballers to its crosstown rival will not make the job easy for Trageser.

Head coach: Mark Harkins
2022-23 record: 17-8 (9-5 Western AA)
Key players: Cohen Kastelitz, Sr., Noah Cumming, Sr., Brantly Salmonsen, Sr.   

Last year, Glacier soared through the state tournament to claim the program’s second ever trophy with a third-place finish. Kastelitz is the only returning varsity starter, but Harkins has proven he can train the Wolfpack into state contention, and the addition of a few former Braves will help.

Head coach: Alex Gonzalez
2022-23 record: 6-13 (4-6 Northwest A)
Key players: Carson Krack, Sr., CJ Thew, Jr., Carson Gulick, Jr.

In his second year in charge of the Bulldogs program, Alex Gonzalez looks to be hitting his stride from the bench. Whitefish has a slew of talented upper classman and has started the season with a pair of wins at last weekend’s Frenchtown Tip-Off Tournament.

Head coach: Chris Finberg
2022-23 record: 17-7 (9-2 Northwest A)
Key players: Jace Hill, Sr., Alihn Anderson, Sr, Cody Schweikert, Sr., Mark Robison, Sr.

A quartet of experienced multisport senior starters headlines the Wildcats this season. Hill averaged 14 points per game last year and led the team in rebounds. 

Head coach: John Hollow
2022-23 record: 23-5 (11-0 District 7B)
Key players: Bryce Gilliard, Sr., Isak Epperly, Sr.

In their last year playing in Class B, the Viking ran the tables on their local competition and made it through the state tournament for a third-place trophy. Now, Hollow will hope to take that momentum up to Class A.

Girls Basketball

Bigfork Valkyries’ head coach Courtney Gunlock huddles with her team in at their home court on Feb. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Head coach: Kaylee Fox
2022-23 record: 19-5 (11-3 Western AA)
Key players: Kennedy Moore, Sr., Chloe Converse, Sr.

For two straight years the Bravettes have brought home a trophy from the state tournament, with last year’s runner-up finish an agonizing three-point loss to Billings West. Flathead is reloading its squad this year and not just on the court — Kaylee Fox has taken over as head coach following Sam Tudor’s departure over the summer. She plans to keep the team’s momentum in place.

Head coach: Amanda Cram
2022-23 record: 2-18 (1-13 Western AA)
Key players: Noah Fincher, Sr., Reese Ramey, Jr., Cazzland Rankosky, Jr.

The Wolfpack needs a jumpstart this year. After earning just two wins last season, Glacier is looking to prove they belong in the top half of the state’s rankings. Already the Pack has a win under its belt, a better start than in 2022.

Head coach: Bob Bolam
2022-23 record: 6-12 (2-8 Northwest A)
Key players: Bailey Smith, Sr., Hailey Ells, Sr., Jude Perry, Sr.

Following last season, which saw the Bulldogs remain in the lower half of the conference rankings, the latest iteration of the Whitefish team should be brimming with confidence, experience and drive with solid senior leadership. Smith and Perry each exceeded 175 points last season and will be a powerful scoring duo as seniors.

Head coach: Cary Finberg
2022-23 record: 12-9 (8-5 Northwest A)
Key players: Hope McAtee, Sr., Maddie Moultray, Sr.

The history and coaching prowess of Cary Finberg means the Wildkats can’t be counted out any season, even after missing last year’s state tournament. Multisport star McAtee drained more than 300 points last year — 14.7 per game— the fourth highest scorer in the state.

Head coach:
Cortnee Gunlock
2022-23 record: 26-0 (11-0 District 7B)
Key players: Braeden Gunlock, Jr., Ava Davey, Jr., Paeten Gunlock, So.

It’s an almost tiring storyline to repeat by now, but the biggest obstacle for the Valkyries will be the jump up to Class A competition — but there’s no better way to make that leap than from an undefeated pedestal. Last year the team outscored its opponents by an average of 46 points per game, led by Braeden and Peaten’s 517 and 301 points respectively. That kind of prolific scoring will help the Valkyries make their mark against new competition.


Olivia Gibbons, a Glacier High School swimmer. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Head coach: Hayden Pierce
2022-23 postseason (boys): Whitefish 2nd / Columbia Falls 3rd
2022-23 postseason (girls): Whitefish 2nd / Columbia Falls 5th
Key returners (girls): Sadie Cheff, Columbia Falls, Jr.
Key returners (boys): Connor Keith, Columbia Falls, Jr., Gavin Sibson, Whitefish, So.

The combined north valley swim teams continue to produce strong pool performances year after year. Last year, Keith, Sibson and Cheff came away with a combined 11 top-three finishes at the state meet.   

Head coach: Charlotte Ball
2022-23postseason (girls): 3rd
Key returners (girls): Ashlyn McGill, Sr., Danika Bucklin, Sr., Erika Dowling, Sr.

The Bigfork team continues to grow in overall size as well as presence at the state meet. Last year, eight girls scored and none of them graduated. Look for big improvements from the freestyle and medley relay teams. 

Head coach: Karen Bouda
2022-23 postseason (boys): Glacier 2nd / Flathead 12th
2022-23 postseason (girls): Glacier 4th / Flathead 11th
Key returners (girls): Olivia Gibbons, Glacier, Jr.
Key returners (boys): Isaac Keim, Glacier, Sr.

The combined Class AA teams are sure to make a splash with some experienced swimmers in the pool. Keim returns as a three-time defending champion, looking to add more medals to his collection and help the team top the podium, while Gibbons plans to add to her 100 freestyle championship and improve on two runner-up finishes.