Soccer is the baby of high school sports in Montana, the most recent addition to the list of MHSA-regulated activities in 1991.
Even 20-plus years later, getting recruited for college ball can be pretty tough. You have to get proactive.
“A lot of emails, a lot of camps,” recent Hellgate grad Kyle Higgins said.
Both Higgins and his high school teammate, goalkeeper Chaucer Larson, were shopping their talents this winter and both were in talks with Seattle University.
“It was fun because we were going through the same things together,” Higgins said. “We got in the conversation of, if we got on the team, we should room together.”
Alas, Higgins swapped schools – he’s now heading to the University of California-Davis. After four years as high school teammates and another slew of seasons playing club soccer together with the Missoula Strikers, Saturday will be the last time the two suit up together.
Higgins, Larson and three other Knights are part of the West team in the 2014 Shodair Soccer Classic in Helena. After combining to help Hellgate to a 21-6-3 record the last two seasons, they’ll team up with all-stars from around the region in search of one more win.
Hellgate’s success, at least in the past few seasons with both boys on the pitch, was built on cement blocks at each end of the field.
Higgins, the Knights’ all-time leading goal scorer and an All-American, ran the show up front. Larson, a 6-foot-2 wall in the net, was the show-stopper on the back end.
“Chaucer is one of those guys you take for granted until you don’t have him anymore,” said Jay Anderson, Hellgate’s head coach. “The defense can almost afford to make a mistake or two knowing they have Chaucer behind them.”
The mistakes were few around the net this past fall in the Hellgate zone. Larson and the Knights allowed only four goals in 12 regular-season games.
The recent Hellgate grad who’s headed to Seattle U for school with a walk-on shot for the soccer team – “I didn’t really look into playing until I had found a school,” he said. “I’d wanted to focus on academic things when I was doing my search.” – is quick to credit his defenders first for that.
“I hadn’t been all that busy all year,” Larson quipped, referencing the lack of shots on goal to get through Hellgate’s defense first. “But you’re still training every day and getting lots of reps. A goal keeper’s job is to be prepared for whatever.”
What was so great about Larson, who played his first two years behind all-stater Lucas Wittkopp, a 6-foot-6 monster who led the team to the 2011 State AA championship and then went on to play at Rocky Mountain College, was that preparedness, Anderson said. He seemed to know where shots were headed milliseconds before they came off of the opponent’s foot.
“One of his greatest attributes was he always had this great knack to put himself in position,” Anderson said.
“And Chaucer was always the great teammate who got us jacked up before the games,” Higgins recalled. “He always had something to say.”
At the other end, the Knights piled up goals behind their striker. Higgins led the state in scoring as a senior, tallying 21 goals to run his career total to 40. Both are school records.
“His ability to just get an extra touch that you don’t think he’s going to allows him to get it in space,” Larson described his teammate. “He’s phenomenal, maybe the best I’ve ever seen, to get that little extra space to get a shot on goal.”
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The Knights looked like a lock last fall to add more state hardware to their collection, perhaps even a first-place trophy to go with the program’s only other title from ’11. After an undefeated run through to the state tournament, a pair of losses left Hellgate short.
That included an overtime loss to rival Missoula Big Sky in the third-place game, a memory that still stings, Higgins said.
But the boys have plenty of golden ones to recall from their time together at Hellgate.
Like the time Larson came out of net to play the field in a blowout win over Kalispell Glacier in October. With backup keeper Peter Byrne tending goal, Larson buried home a shot for his first goal in the 71st minute of the game.
“It took me about four minutes to score,” Larson laughed. “(We) give our captain Garrett Leach some flak for that one. I definitely outscored him for the season.”
But most of all they remember winning it all as sophomores. That batch of Knights, led by Kyle’s older brother Casey Higgins, stopped Billings Senior in a shootout to claim the championship.
They’ll have one more opportunity for memory making together now that the Strikers have recently finished their spring season at the Far West Regionals in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“I’ve always been really excited for the Shodair,” Higgins said. “It means everything (to get one more game). After the Strikers season, we just wanted to keep playing together.”
The Shodair Soccer Classic, an all-star contest for graduated seniors from Montana high schools, benefits the Shodair Children’s Hospital.
The girls’ game is slated for 5 p.m. with the boys to follow at 7 p.m. at Helena’s Nelson Stadium.