Thursday, November 26, 2020

7 miles of semifinals

Daily Inter Lake | October 23, 2020 9:18 PM

There are four Class A semifinal soccer games scheduled today, all about seven miles from one another.

At Smith Fields in Whitefish, the Bulldog boys play Corvallis and girls play Billings Central. At Columbia Falls High School, its girls play Laurel and boys have Billings Central.

The winners go on to the state final and there’s a possibility of an all Northern A final, but nothing is for sure.

One certainty is that there will be snow to clear off the fields this morning before any soccer games are decided. The forecasted snow is expected to subside in the early morning hours, only leaving behind frigid temperatures, hovering somewhere in the 20s for most of the day.

But that’s something soccer players don’t generally mind — at this point, everyone just wants to play.

“It’s gonna be cold,” Whitefish girls’ coach Roland Benedict said. “But other than that we’re ready to go.”

Benedict’s squad is looking to make their first finals appearance since 2013, when Billings Central prevailed 4-1.

Billings Central is a Class A soccer power school, having won six consecutive girls’ state titles at one point and nine total, the most of any school in Montana (Class AA Helena Capital and Bozeman come close, with eight girls’ titles each).

The biggest thing to playing Billings Central, Benedict said, “is getting over the fact that you’re playing Billings Central.”

The Rams worked their way to a 7-1-1 record this fall. Sophomore midfielder Abby Derbyshire is the leading scorer with 17 goals, second most in Class A. Junior striker Solei Elletson has 15.

Whitefish (10-0-1) has sophomore striker Emma Barron as its leading scorer, with 10 goals. Brooke Roberts has seven.

There are a few starters returning from injury and a few that are banged up, Benedict said. Even if they are at less than 100 percent: “They will do their best to give it everything they’ve got.”

“It’s going to be a battle, two best teams in the state going head to head,” Benedict said. “It’s going to be good soccer.”

The Columbia Falls Wildkats find themselves in a familiar situation, meeting Laurel (8-0-1) in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Last fall Laurel bounced Columbia Falls in the semifinals on its way to a state title and in 2018 won in the quarterfinals.

The Maack sisters are Laurel’s main agitators — Mya with 20 goals and older sister Morgan with 11 — and the main reason the defending state champs are such a threat.

“Our hands are going to be full,” Wildkats’ coach Thomas Clark said.

Columbia Falls (10-2-0) has some threats of its own, namely in the top goal scorer in the state, junior midfielder Maddie Robison, whose 31 goals and 21 assists are in a league of their own. There’s also Cheyanne Johnston-Heinz, a junior midfielder with 15 goals.

The Wildkats will be missing freshman Hope McAtee and senior Kate Hatfield because of quarantine; however, Clark is still confident.

“We think that we can give them some problems,” he said. “You have beat the best to be the best and that’s kind of our mindset going into this. You’ve got to respect a team like that but we’re a confident group.”

The Wildkats were last in a state final in 2014 and last won a title in 2004, their only one. It’s been almost the same for the boys team, who haven’t been to the chipper since 2005 and last won a state title in 2003.

The Wildcats (10-1-1) drew Billings Central for their semifinal game, and it’s not lost on them how big this game is for the school.

“It’s a gigantic game for our program,” Wildcats coach O’Brien Byrd said.

Billings Central, at 6-1-2, won the Eastern A this year and hasn’t been the powerhouse the girls side is — it won its only state title in 2009.

Senior midfielder Sam Dull leads the Rams attack with eight goals along with senior striker Cameron Capser, who has six.

Columbia Falls only loss this fall was to Whitefish, as was its only tie.

Senior midfielder Jason Albin leads the team with 10 goals and Johnny Carl, also a senior midfielder, has nine. Senior Niels Getts has eight and freshman Kai Golan checks in with six.

Byrd counts himself lucky to only have one player in quarantine at this point in the season and said the team is otherwise healthy.

“The guys all know the stakes, and we’ll do our best to make history,” he said.

The Whitefish (11-0-1) boys team is on its way to dynastic status in Montana high school soccer history — they’ve won two titles back to back and haven’t lost a game since the 2017 title game, where Belgrade won 4-0. The Bulldogs’ one tie this year was with Columbia Falls and they’ve outscored opponents 33-5.

“We are eager to build and play better soccer,” coach John Lacey said. “We have pretty high standards and we’re trying to meet them.”

In any other conference, Corvallis (9-3-2) might not be considered an underdog against most teams, but it does bring some offense to the table in Chris Gonzalez, the fourth best goal scorer in Class A, who has 19 goals. Luke Sangster, a junior striker, has 10.

But Whitefish may be hard to match.

Brandon Mendoza, the state’s leading scorer, leads a seasoned group on the pitch today. Senior Senior midfielder Mendoza has 20 goals and six assists. Marvin Kimera, a senior striker, has 10. And there’s junior Gabe Menicke with seven.

The Bulldogs like to score, and score a lot. They’ve beat teams by impressive margins — Libby by 11 goals and Stevensville by seven — and once they get going, the firepower is hard to stop.

Lacey’s group is healthy and no one is quarantined, which he credits to the athletes, their parents and the school district.

“Every game that we get to play right now is more of what we love doing,” Lacey said. “We’ve got to cherish everyone of those things.”