The Whitefish boys hope to begin their third straight championship march when the Class A soccer playoffs kick off today, but unlike a year ago, the Bulldogs aren’t undisputed favorites entering the postseason.
Stevensville (11-0-1) beat Whitefish (9-1-2) head-to-head on Sept. 28 and Billings Central (9-1-2) had a strong season as the Eastern A champion. Libby (5-5-2) played all three of those teams during the regular season and coach Charlie Webster considers Stevensville the best of the bunch.
“Of the teams that we’ve played, I think Stevi is the best team, followed closely by Billings Central and Whitefish,” Webster said.
“Stevi is as good as their record is. They’re big, athletic and skilled soccer players. Probably the biggest thing (that stood out) when we played them was the team size. It’s hard to coach or teach size on a soccer team. That’s a big advantage.”
Whitefish ended the regular season with back-to-back victories over Columbia Falls and Bigfork and while coach O’Brien Byrd said his team hasn’t peaked yet, he’s confident entering the playoffs.
“We’re improving in areas, we haven’t taken any back-steps in terms of the soccer end of things, but we haven’t peaked yet,” he said.
“Definitely the training sessions this week have had a lot of grit and were very attacking-oriented, so these guys played really well all week.”
Before they can worry about Stevensville or Billings Central, the Bulldogs have to get through Livingston (7-5), their first-round opponent. Whitefish handed Livingston a 5-1 loss back on Sept. 14, but Byrd said Livingston played better than that scoreline indicates.
“To be honest that is a very flattering scoreline for how close the game was,” Byrd said. “What kind of jilted us a little bit was Livingston’s unusual system of play. These guys had never played against a 3-4-3 (formation) and they played it fairly well. (Livingston) has strong, fast, physical players, so they’re just not a team they want to look past at all. If we play with a B-level effort on Saturday we’ll get beat.”
Whitefish hosts that game today at 2 p.m. at Smith Fields.
Libby and Bigfork (3-7-2) drew the other top seeds in the first round in Stevensville and Billings Central, respectively. Libby has won or tied its last five games and hasn’t lost since a 3-0 defeat to Stevensville on Sept. 21.
“We’ve had a good second half of the season,” Webster said. “I think we’re going into the playoffs feeling pretty good about ourselves.”
Bigfork enters the postseason on a two-game losing streak.
The other first-round matchup features Hamilton (5-8) and Belgrade (6-5-1).
Whitefish is also a top seed on the girls side, with the Bulldogs hosting Livingston (2-7-3) today at noon at Smith Fields.
Whitefish (10-2) beat Livingston 2-1 earlier this season but the Bulldogs were outplayed much of the second half and needed a late goal by Jess Baldonado to pull out the victory.
“They’re a very dynamic and athletic team,” Whitefish coach Wendy Farrens said of Livingston. “They’ll play the full 80 minutes and it will be a battle for sure.”
Last year’s runner-up, Columbia Falls (7-2-3), plays at Hamilton (11-0-1) and the Wildkats are looking to maintain their momentum after finishing the regular season with five consecutive wins. Columbia Falls began the season 2-2-3 and coach Greg Trenerry said the slow start humbled his team.
“I think they realized that they weren’t going hard every time,” Trenerry said.
“And we made some adjustments. Lindsay Strouse, we moved her into the center and she and Haley Purdy are playing well together. They’re scoring and finding each other better. I think that adversity got them going, got them playing harder and working harder in practice.”
Both Farrens and Trenerry called Billings Central (12-0), winner of the last five state titles, the favorite to win the championship, and that’s the team that awaits Polson (6-5-1) in the first round. The Lady Pirates and Rams kick off today at 11:30 a.m. at Rocky Mountain College.
The other first-round matchup pits Laurel (7-2-3) against Frenchtown (8-4-1).