Former soccer players from both Columbia Falls and Whitefish high schools who played between 1992 and 2012 will battle for the inaugural North Valley Cup on July 1. The summer soccer event is the brainchild of Whitefish boys soccer coach O’Brien Byrd and is sponsored by the Flathead Rapids. He calls the reunion event a “festival and jamboree.”
“It’s celebrating our history,” he said. “Twenty years of soccer in the North Valley.”
Whitefish and Columbia Falls high schools both added soccer to their roster of sports in 1992. Back then, the league included AA teams from across the state. Columbia Falls and Whitefish were the only two A teams. Class A schools didn’t form their own league until 2001.
Soccer in the North Valley has come a long way since the early 1990s. Boys and girls teams from Columbia Falls and Whitefish won an astounding 10 state championships. The rival clubs have met three times in the finals, and the regular season head-to-head matches have almost always been season highlights.
Former Bulldog and Wildcat players are traveling from as far away as Seattle, Portland and Denver to participate in the alumni games. And while the event is all for fun, the heated rivalry between the two schools is sure to bring out the competitive spirit in all involved.
“People are already talking trash,” Byrd said about a few players who have signed up.
Tyler Stanley, a 2004 Columbia Falls graduate, will suit up for the Wildcat alumni. His teams won the state title in 2001 and 2003 — that latter an epic showdown against Whitefish that went into overtime.
“Those rivalry games were pretty intense,” Stanley said. “It was the biggest game of the year. We were pretty well matched back then.”
Stanley went on to play with Shippensburg University and Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. He currently plays with the Flathead Rapids premiere soccer club. He expects the alumni game to be competitive “but all in good fun.”
Former Wildkat kicker Nicolette Bales graduated from Columbia Falls in 1998. She says the North Valley Cup will be a great chance to see some old faces and possibly get some overdue revenge on the Lady Bulldogs.
“I’m super excited to play,” Bales said. “Of course, I want to beat Whitefish. When I was there, we never beat them.”
Byrd finds himself in a tricky situation for the alumni game. While he is the longtime coach at Whitefish, he’s also a 1995 Columbia Falls graduate who played on the inaugural Wildcat soccer team. He’ll suit up in red and blue to coach the Columbia Falls men.
Meanwhile, Peter Browne, the longtime Columbia Falls boys coach, will lead the Whitefish men’s alumni team. Browne coached the first Whitefish boys team in 1992 and played on Whitefish adult league teams in the 1980s.
Greg Trenerry will coach the Columbia Falls women’s alumni, and Lini Reading will coach the Whitefish women. Reading led the Lady Bulldogs for 15 seasons and, along with Whitefish philanthropist Richard Atkinson, played an integral role in starting girls soccer in the North Valley.
Reading remembers the first Class A title game in 2001 between Whitefish and Columbia Falls as a true dog and cat fight. Whitefish won the match 1-0, but it was anybody’s game, she recalls.
“In those rival games, it was never about who was better on paper,” she said. “Statistics never mattered. It was all about who wanted it more and who had the psychological edge.”
The women’s alumni game is set for 1 p.m., and the men play at 3 p.m. The North Valley Cup also includes boys and girls games featuring current high school players at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. respectively.
In the evening, the Flathead Rapids women’s team will play the University of Montana Lady Griz alumni at 5 p.m., and the Flathead Rapids men’s team will face off against the Sandpoint Green Monarchs at 7 p.m.
Former players can still register for the alumni games. Cost is $25 and the roster is capped at 20 for each team. For more information, visit online at www.flatheadrapids.com.