Year in Review

Our Favorite Sports Moments of 2023

From state championships to expanded skateboarding and pickleball opportunities, here are a few of the top storylines from the last year

By Micah Drew
The Whitefish Bulldogs celebrate their 3-1 win over the Columbia Falls Wildkats in the Class A championship game at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Oct. 28, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There’s no end to sporting action in the Flathead Valley. With five public high schools juggling nine or more sanctioned boys and girls sports each season, numerous club activities for youth and adults, and an endless amount of outdoor activities to do year-round, it’s hard to whittle down the top moments and storylines. But that’s just what we tried to do. Here’s a collection of tales of athletic glory and opportunity we covered in 2023.

Victorious Valkyries

In their Class B swan song season, the Bigfork Valkyries hit historic highs, completing an undefeated season with a state championship over Big Timber

Braeden Gunlock of the Bigfork Valkyries takes a shot against the Troy Lady Trojans defense in Bigfork on Feb. 2, 2023. Bigfork won 98-18. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Inside the Bigfork High School gymnasium in February, dozens of red-white-and-blue banners adorn the walls, denoting numerous state championships won by the Valkyries and Vikings over the years. Among the pennants heaping annual accolades on football, cross country and boys basketball champions, however, is a glaring omission: There was no banner for the girls basketball team, which has never reached the pinnacle of high school sporting success. 

This year, the Valkyries changed that. Read about the team here, and about their state championship victory here.

Glacier Nordic Athletes Shine at Nationals

Maeve Ingelfinger won the skate sprint ad the U18 USSA Junior National Championship, adding to GNC’s small but mighty presence on the national scene

Maeve Ingelfinger competes in the Glacier Glide 10k skate ski race in Whitefish on Jan. 7, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Three minutes and 34 seconds. That’s how long Whitefish cross-country skier Maeve Ingelfinger spent sprinting through the course at Fairbanks, Alaska’s Birch Hill Recreation Area on Tuesday to capture the U18 USSA Junior National Championships individual skate sprint title.

Competing in a series of three Nordic ski races at Junior Nationals (JNs) in Fairbanks, Ingelfinger took third in the 7.5-kilometer classic race on Monday before winning two heats of the skate sprint on Tuesday to enter the afternoon final with the fastest qualifying time. Weather delayed the sprint heats late into the afternoon, putting Maeve on the line for the final in the early evening. Read more here.

Best of Preps — Winter 2023

Justin Windauer, Columbia Falls High School wrestler. March 14, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Among the many recognized athletes from the 2022-2023 winter sports season, Justin Windauer’s individual championship was a standout, as it helped the Wildcats earn the program’s second team wrestling title.

Justin Windauer

School: Columbia Falls
Class: Senior
State Tournament: Champion, 160 pounds

It can be hard for a returning state champion to set loftier goals for their final season, but Justin was in a unique position to raise the bar with a top-caliber team of Wildcats backing him up. “The focus this year was not so much again on my own individual title, but on getting the team title as well. Winning my own title was just a steppingstone to getting the team trophy.” From the start of the season, Justin said his teammates knew they would have a shot at winning the Class A championship, and as the season progressed their confidence just grew. “Starting with the first practice and carrying through each tournament, each kid was stepping up and improving and a lot of that is a testament to having seniors like Justin they can look up to,” said coach Jessie Schaeffer. At the state tournament, it was clear after the initial rounds that the Wildcats had a clear path to the championship if they wrestled “half as good as we were supposed to,” said Justin. “There’s obviously always pressure at state, but all the guys responded super well.” They won by nearly 50 points.

Read about the rest of the top high school athletes from the Flathead Valley here.

Baseball Bats Inaugural Season

In the first year of Montana High School Association-sanctioned baseball, the Whitefish Bulldogs made the state final.

Baseball practice. Beacon file photo

“These kids want to be at practice, they want to be diving for baseball that might be just out of reach,” Whitefish Bulldogs coach Kyler Blades said when the inaugural baseball season was delayed due to prolonged wintry weather. “They’re just excited to be out there wearing green and gold.”

The late start didn’t diminish Whitefish’s prowess on the diamond, however, as the Bulldogs earned a trip to the first ever MHSA state championships, coming up just short of a title against Polson.

Pickleball Offers Competitive, Social Outlet

The Flathead Valley has wholeheartedly embraced the recreational and competitive sport that has seen astronomical growth nationwide

Players compete in the Crown of Continent PickleBall Tournament at the Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork on Aug. 12, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Over the course of three days in early August, a flurry of whacks, thwoks and dinks could be heard around the Jewel Basin Center near Bigfork.

The source of the din was the Crown of the Continent Pickleball Tournament, the largest pickleball event in the Flathead Valley and a stop on the U.S. Senior Pickleball Circuit. Bigfork’s Two Rivers Pickleball Club hosted the tournament for the third year, drawing more than 250 players to its world-class pickleball center.

“We’ve really become a destination tournament for players around the country,” said Keith Ori, co-manager of the Two Rivers Pickleball Club, and co-owner of the Jewel Basin Center. “We hear over and over that the tournament, and our facility, are just fabulous and have a special vibe to them.” Read more here.

On Deck

The Whitefish Skatepark Association finished a fundraising drive to expand the Dave Olseth Memorial Skatepark early this year and construction wrapped up at the end of the summer, offering additional opportunities for local skateboarders

The completed expansion to Dave Olseth Memorial Skatepark in Whitefish, as viewed on Sept. 29, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After nearly two years of fundraising, construction and dreaming up a new future for skateboarding in the Flathead Valley, the expanded Dave Olseth Memorial Skatepark is now open in Whitefish.

On a Friday afternoon in late September, a dozen skateboarders and bikers of all ages traversed the park’s brand new features. Older skaters taught newcomers the lay of the land, and parents looked on as elementary age children took trial runs on their scooters. Read about the expanded skatepark here.

Following up on the success in Whitefish, a potential location has also been identified for a Columbia Falls Skatepark.

Roller Derby Returns

Three years after COVID suspended all roller derby bouts, members of Flathead Valley Roller Derby are ready to start skating competitively

Big Mountain Misfits of the Flathead Valley face Hel’z Belles of Helena in a roller derby bout at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 29, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The last time that Jeanne Langan laced up her skates, wrote the number 63 on her upper arm and brought out her competitive alter ego, Veruca Slaughter, was Feb. 29, 2020.

Fortunately for Langan, she won’t have to wait for the next leap year to hit the rink.

Langan is a member of the Big Mountain Misfits roller derby team in Kalispell, a sport that has been on a three-year hiatus since the pandemic first took hold in Montana. Read more here.

Third Time’s the Charm: Whitefish Bulldogs Win Class A Girls Soccer Final

The Whitefish Bulldogs downed the Columbia Falls Wildkats 3-1 on Oct. 28 at Smith Fields

Brynn Morse of the Whitefish Bulldogs winds up for a shot on goal against the Columbia Falls Wildkats in the Class A championship game at Smith Fields in Whitefish on Oct. 28, 2023. Whitefish won 3-1. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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.” Read about the championship game here.

Best of Preps — Fall 2023

The best way to capture a season’s worth of successes by local athletes is with our Best of Preps photoshoot and write up. This fall soccer, golf, cross country, flag and tackle football athletes from the Flathead Valley shone on the fields, greens and gridirons.

Sam Engellant of Glacier High School golf pictured in Kalispell on Nov. 27, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Sam Engellant

School: Glacier
Class: Junior
State tournament: 2nd place

During the first golf tournament of the year, Sam recalls playing the back nine talking to his fellow competitors about who they thought might emerge as the individual champion later in the year. Several names of top players were bandied about before a someone mentioned Sam’s. “I was skeptical when I heard that. I mean, I’d have to come a long way to end up at the top, so to see myself get there and finish tied for first was a weird full-circle moment for me.” It certainly felt like a long road to the state tournament for Engellant, who missed out on his sophomore season due to a cerebral spinal fluid leak. He missed months of school, but after surgery was cleared for low-intensity activity and spent the fall golf season as the team manager. “It was really eye-opening to see the game from that perspective. And it really benefitted me by the time I finally came back. I mean, I just appreciate everything so much more. Having tournaments is something I used to take for granted, but I really have a new love for every single opportunity I get to tee off.” His recovery and subsequent return to playing full swing was relatively swift this year, and Engellant was soon eyeing the top of the podium. For the second year in a row, the Class AA individual title came down to a playoff. Engellant and Skyview’s Tye Boone both bogeyed the first playoff hole, but Engellant lipped out his putt on the second. His runner-up finish, however, was plenty high enough to help the Wolfpack storm to the team title. “At the start of the season we knew we’d be good, but it takes a lot of work to actually make it happen. When we realized we had won it was just this coming together of absolute excitement and joy for what we’ve done. To know you have special ability and talent, and then to actually see it play out, is pretty awesome.”

See the full Best of Preps lineup here.