Wildkats, Bulldogs' third battle is for title

Oct. 27—For the first time since 2006, there will be a Class A girls champion from the Northern conference crowned this Saturday at Smith Fields.

Seventeen years ago, it was Whitefish who lifted the trophy, and the next year, it was Belgrade, then in Class A. After that, the dominant Billings Central and Laurel girls combined for 15 titles. That streak was broken this fall, with both teams falling in quarterfinals.

This year, the Whitefish and Columbia Falls girls meet for the first time ever in a state final. Whitefish has been in a championship game in three of the past four years, but it's been a little longer than that for Columbia Falls — the Wildkats last appeared in a state final in 2014, and won their only title in 2004.

Columbia Falls coach Thomas Clark was in sixth grade the last time someone other than Laurel or Billings Central won a Class A title.

"It's pretty wild and it's very cool that it's gonna be a team up in the north that's gonna win it," Clark said. "It really is a testament to the soccer community that we have up here, the work that so many people have done to get it to this point. Both teams are very proud to be representing the Flathead Valley."

The Bulldogs beat Billings Central in the quarters and Lockwood in the semifinals; Columbia Falls topped Hamilton and Bigfork on its way to the final.

Whitefish and Columbia Falls have already played twice this year and split the season series — the Bulldogs won 4-2 in the Wildkats' house on Sept. 12, and the Kats went to Smith Fields Oct. 5 and won 2-1.

"This final, you have already played the opponent and you've already beaten them and you also look at the game film like, 'Yeah, we lost to 'em and it wasn't the fluke,'" Whitefish coach Roland Benedict said. "They played good enough to beat us, but I don't have to create the belief for them that they can win the game. They know they can — and will they do what's required to execute and win that game? They know they can do it. And so it's just putting out the best performance and making sure the players are mentally and physically as ready and prepared as possible."

Both teams have similar records: Columbia Falls is 12-1-2; Whitefish is 12-2-0. Both have allowed fewer than 20 goals to opponents this fall.

"If we were playing Laurel or Billings, it might be a more difficult game because they're the winners," Benedict said. "They always win. They always beat you. That makes it tough. It's this big dragon to slay. In that capacity you could say, 'Yeah, it's easier.' However, you could say it's harder because it's Columbia Falls, right? And you've got all the rivalry and all of that, so it adds that emotional element."

Columbia Falls boasts two of the top goal scorers in the state in Hope McAtee (25 goals) and Josie Harris (26). Olivia Genovese is Whitefish's leader with 19 goals and Delaney Smith has 15.

"I do feel that we have the two best teams in the state of Montana playing each other on Saturday," Clark said. "And both teams play a really good brand, try to play the game the right way, try to dictate play, try to create chances on their own terms and unbalance the opponent and do things that make it hard for you to defend. And so it's gonna be fun 'cause it's kind of like a chess match."

Saturday's game is at 2:30 p.m.