MISSOULA — Through adversity they've pulled together and grown stronger.
Now there's not a soccer team in the state that's going to feel safe with the Missoula Sentinel girls on the schedule.
"I definitely did not see us doing this," said Spartans coach Keri Grasky, whose team improved to 4-3-3 with a 4-1 win over intracity rival Hellgate Thursday at Playfair Park. "It's such a good feeling and I just go home beaming."
Grasky's team has lost just once in its last seven matches and that's impressive considering she had to replace nine starters from last season. Included on its list of greatest hits is a win over Western AA frontrunner Kalispell Glacier — the Wolfpack's only loss of the season — and a 2-2 draw with second-place Helena High.
The Spartans' inexperience is not the only reason their accomplishments are noteworthy. The team played without Grasky in its first two matches when the coach flew to New Jersey to attend her sister-in-law's funeral.
"I got the call during a Friday practice, so my girls saw me at a pretty weak moment," she related. "I think that was really hard for them emotionally. They were very concerned about me and I could just tell. It's very heartwarming.
"All of us have a story, have hardships. It's being able to come together and pull through. My sister-in-law was a great soccer player herself so I knew I was ready to come back and keep coaching."
The Spartans also had to make due without their assistant coach, Kylie Cook, for a while. The Houston native had pressing issues in her home state following Hurricane Harvey.
"The first few games were definitely hard not having (Grasky) here and with the smoke and being inside practicing in gyms for 45 minutes," senior midfielder Emma Krebsbach said. "But every single girl on the team has come out with grit and hard work every day at practice, head in the game knowing we had so much to do. We've done it and it feels so great."
The Spartans were especially good offensively on Thursday. They raced to a 3-0 halftime lead on a pair of goals by sophomore Aisley Allen and a slick play by junior Quinn Peacock in which she weaved between two defenders to break a scoreless tie with a goal in the 22nd minute.
"We have a lot of amazing athletes and we just have to keep playing with heart and playing hard," said senior forward Grace Stayner, who helped guide the Spartans to a third-place finish at state last year.
"We're definitely playing as a team more. At the beginning of the season we had a hard time meshing and were playing for ourselves. We've really upped our game. We have the potential to be a really great team and we're showing it."
The two-time defending state champion Hellgate boys blanked Sentinel for the second time this season. This time the Knights scored all four of their goals in the first half before coach Jay Anderson made wholesale changes to his lineup.
Hellgate (8-1-1) has been on a serious roll since dropping a 2-1 decision at Helena High on Sept. 14. The Knights have outscored their last five foes by a combined total of 26-1.
"I like the team atmosphere right now," Hellgate coach Jay Anderson said. "We're playing better together, better team soccer.
"It was a little bit more individualistic at the beginning of the season. Our defense is playing very well. Our goalie (Justin Lane) is playing very well. They've been the start of our offense. They're getting the ball off their foot and starting our offense for us."
Juniors Cole Hage and Matt Baldridge took turns giving the Spartans fits in the first half. Each scored two goals, with Baldridge adding two assists and Hage one.
It's not easy being the team to beat in Class AA, but the Knights have handled it well.
"We know we're going to get everybody's best game," Anderson said. "We're really looking forward to our (home) game against Helena High on Tuesday because they beat us earlier this season.
"They beat us fair and square and we'd like a little payback."