Columbia Falls' Hope McAtee racking up huge numbers on the pitch

Sep. 14—Last Tuesday, while the Columbia Falls Wildkats were in Bigfork taking on the Valkyries, senior Hope McAtee assisted on a goal by teammate Josie Harris in the first half of the game.

It might have looked like just any other soccer play, but it marked a big milestone for McAtee — she'd tied the all-class state record for most career assists, 59, set by her former teammate Maddie Robison in 2021. Now a few games out from that, McAtee is up to 64 career assists.

Robison's other record, the one for single-season assists (21) is likely to be the next to fall.

McAtee has tied the single season assist record for the past two seasons and now a third of the way through this season, McAtee has already racked up 13 helpers.

"She's gonna end up with a huge number," Wildkats coach Thomas Clark said. "It's gonna be wild. I don't see anybody breaking it anytime soon."

She does like scoring goals, but she likes passing the ball even more.

"Obviously it's cool to score, but I just love seeing how excited other people get when they score goals and like knowing that I was able to help them do that," McAtee said.

As a junior, McAtee scored 23 goals, the fifth-most in Class A. The year before that, she scored seven and as a freshman she had 13. Not bad for someone who'd only played defense prior to high school.

So what makes a good passer?

"It's a combination of cultivating that talent and then also just you're born with it instinctually to be able to have the vision and the understanding to recognize the moment when it's on to go for those passes," Clark said. "Hope also has a unique passing range and an ability to put different textures on different types of passes. That's just rare at this level. You don't see it very often."

The Wildkats' offense is set up to go through McAtee. In some ways she's like the quarterback.

"We don't play our nine through the way that most teams do," Clark said. "We play through our nine and let her run our offense. I've never really seen a team on the girls side play with the holdup player that can have that kind of passing range. She's been surrounded by some amazing goal scorers, but Hope has also created some amazing goal scorers with her passing, so it's worked out perfectly."

Her supporting cast is also impressive: Harris, a senior, has scored 16 goals, sophomore Mila Johns has five and freshman Onnikka Lawrence has scored six.

McAtee and freshman Riley Byrd shared a special moment during the Wildkats' home opener against Frenchtown on August 29 when she assisted on Byrd's first varsity goal.

"My best friend for my whole life, Riley Byrd, scored her first goal of high school, I assisted it and that was just super cool," McAtee said.

It makes sense that McAtee also plays the post position in basketball, a sport where she's been selected as an all-state player twice and led the Northwest A in points (323), rebounds (7.6 avg) and assists (188). In soccer, McAtee is a three-time all-state player.

The Wildkats are coming off a 4-2 loss to Whitefish on Tuesday, where McAtee assisted on Harris' goal late in the first half.

"The cool thing is that we play various teams of experience level in the state and you can see that with some of the score lines that teams like us and Whitefish and Bigfork and Laurel and Billings have had, but Hope has done this against the best teams," Clark said. "She's been on the score sheet in every game she's played against Whitefish except for one, whether it was an assist or goal scoring herself. And so to have a player that can come up big in those moments is pretty cool too."

At 5-foot-10, she stands above most not because of her height, but her sheer athletic ability. It translates well to the soccer pitch.

"She also is this phenomenal athlete that has the ability to hold off big strong center backs, get the ball, and then turn off them and find our wingers in behind or combine with the center midfielder," Clark said. "It's this perfect combination of unique passing ranges, unique vision, but also the body to be able to hold defenders off.

"The whole system of playing with the hold up nine is predicated on manipulating the defensive shape by having them step to her. And then she takes advantage of those gaps that are made by people stepping to her."

While the physical aspect of soccer comes naturally to McAtee, she is drawn to the cerebral aspect of the sport.

"For me, obviously I like to work hard, but it's like I'm always processing what I'm gonna do once I get the ball and what my next step is gonna be,"McAtee said. "I love looking at the field and finding the slots where I can play the ball and find my teammates. That's like the coolest part for me, the mental part behind it."

She hasn't signed with any college yet, but she has time. In the meantime, she has a 4.4 GPA and is the president of the National Honors Society at Columbia Falls High School. And the Wildkats still have a lot more soccer to play.

"I am thankful for Thomas and all the opportunities he's unlocked for me in high school as a soccer player," McAtee said.

The Wildkats are 4-1-1 overall and 1-1-1 in league play, and head to Libby for a 4 p.m. game. The boys play at 6 p.m.