Griz, Bulldogs to Play Exhibition Game in Columbia Falls

The two Division I soccer programs both won their respective conference titles last year and will showcase the highest level of the sport seen in the Flathead Valley

By Micah Drew
Montana's Skyleigh Thompson vies for the ball against Weber State's Sadie Newsom. Photo by Ben Allan Smith via 406mtsports.com

This August, Columbia Falls High School will host an NCAA Division I collegiate soccer match at Flip Darling Memorial Field in what is expected to be one of the most exciting and well-attended sporting events in the Flathead Valley.

The University of Montana Grizzlies and the Gonzaga University Bulldogs will open their fall schedules in an exhibition match on Aug. 11. The game, which will not count for either team’s record, will be the first game of its caliber played in the Flathead Valley, which is two hours from the nearest college soccer program in Missoula.

“My main motivation is that I, along with the other individuals who run the local teams, am trying to grow the game of soccer here in the Valley. We’re arguably only 40 years old in comparison to track and baseball which have 100 years of history,” said O’Brien Byrd, the boys soccer coach at Columbia Falls High School and organizer of the exhibition. “We’ve brought college teams here to play exhibition in the past, but never programs of this caliber and with so many connections to the Valley.”

In recent years there has been a pipeline of top-tier players taking their soccer talents from Flathead Valley pitches to the the Griz.

Former Columbia Falls star Josie Windauer caught the eye of former Griz coach Mark Plakorus and his replacement Chris Citowicki with her record-setting stats sheet that included scoring 33 goals her senior season and earning three all-state selections. Despite starting her college career during the COVID-19 pandemic, she earned a lot of playing time during her freshman and sophomore campaigns. Possibly more importantly, she elevated the possibilities available for local athletes and drew collegiate attention to the Flathead Valley.

Josie Windauer, right, of Columbia Falls, squares-off with Emma Barron, of Whitefish, during a match at Columbia Falls High School on Oct. 1, 2019. Columbia Falls beat Whitefish 3-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The fall of 2021, Windauer was joined by Flathead High School graduate Skyleigh Thompson, an electric athlete for the Bravettes who also earned three straight all-state recognitions and was the Class AA Western Conference player of the year after leading the state in goals and assists. Citowicki took note of her during soccer camps at UM and praised her ability to find the net.

“Any window that was open, she would shoot and score. Every single time. You can’t ignore that,” Citowicki said in a press release about Thompson’s signing. “You have to take a player like that because goal-scoring is so hard to do and she just naturally does it.”

As a Griz, Thompson has become “the face of the program,” according to Byrd, and was voted Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP last fall after the team’s unbeaten regular season.

“A girl from Flathead High School is the top player for a conference-championship team,” Byrd said. “She’s the ultimate role model player — she brings good energy to the pitch, she’s always smiling and she plays smash mouth soccer.”

The most recent addition to the Griz from the area is Glacier High School graduate Reagan Brisendine, who led the state offensively, netting 27 goals, including an eight-goal game against Butte last fall. Her career 78 goals slots her third on the all-time list for Class AA in Montana.

Reagan Brisendine of Glacier High School. Best of Preps. Fall 2022 Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

And then there’s Whitefish graduate Norah Schmidt, who helped lead the Bulldogs to the Class A championship in October, the program’s first title in 17 years. Instead of the Griz, the keeper had her eyes set on playing for Gonzaga throughout high school and signed her National Letter of Intent in December.

Norah Schmidt of Whitefish High School soccer pictured in Kalispell on Nov. 27, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With two recent graduates currently on the Griz roster, plus another with the Bulldogs, August’s exhibition match will be a homecoming of sorts.

Byrd said all three local athletes will be “suited and booted,” and hopefully get playing time in front of their home crowds. Windauer, who is finishing her physical therapy degree at UM, will be on the sidelines as one of the athletic trainers.

The pitch will be teeming with additional local connections. Byrd put in a request for a referee who graduated from Whitefish, the drumline will be made up of former Columbia Falls students, and the color commentary will be done by locals as well.

“The ball girls will be our local high school players and I guarantee you what those girls will dream of from then on will be a college soccer career,” Byrd said. “We’ve been building to this moment for five years since the first exhibition match we held was a success. To give these teams the chance to play in front of a soccer market like the Flathead Valley, and give the Flathead Valley that kind of game will be surreal.”

During the 2023 season, the Griz went 13-3-3 and won the regular season Big Sky Conference title. Gonzaga’s season saw the program earn its first West Coast Conference title and go 14-4-2 with a first round win at the NCAA tournament.

As an exhibition match, there will be no charge for admission, and Byrd expects a standing-room only crowd. Within 48 hours of announcing the game, Byrd received more than 1,000 responses. Flip Darling Memorial Field’s capacity is currently around 1,000, but Byrd said they are planning to bring in football bleachers for an additional 400 seats.

“Fans will want to get there early, get in line and get ready for the best game of soccer the Flathead’s ever seen,” he said.

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