MISSOULA — Missoula Hellgate soccer coach Jay Anderson said reigning Montana Gatorade Player of the Year Matt Baldridge makes everyone on the Knights squad better.

And the two-time defending champs are already pretty dang good without the added help.

"(Baldridge is) well ahead of the curve and he’s got a lot of guys around him, too, that are ahead of the curve," coach Anderson said. "It makes it easy for me and makes him look better, too, because he’s got some personnel around him that are good as well."

That explains Baldridge's assist total. Last season as a sophomore the attacking midfielder led Class AA in helpers with 12, according to the Gatorade Player of the Year website. Anderson highlighted Baldridge's ability to see the play before it happens and deliver — an impeccable use of eye-foot coordination. 

And although he doesn't necessarily need it for his sport, his eye-hand coordination is up to speed, too, which helps with his music hobby. He's a talented pianist, although he admits soccer has taken most of his focus lately.

"I've kind of gotten away from it a little bit. (I don't play) as much as I'd like to because I'm super busy with soccer, but I sometimes mess around on the piano," said Baldridge, whose mom is a violin and viola professor at the University of Montana.

That doesn't mean he accompanies her, though.

"She's too good for me," Baldridge said laughing.

But Baldridge is a maestro on the soccer field in Montana and a big reason why the Knights are favorites headed into 2017 season. That, and they return almost everyone from their state title team.

The Knights lost just three players to graduation last season, who accounted for just five total points, according to wallsocer.net. If the 2016 Knights were considered underdogs after an exodus of 11 graduating seniors from the 2015 championship team and still won state, what does that make the 2017 iteration of the Hellgate boys?

A target.

"We're defintely confident going into the season, but we also know that we need to keep our egos in check and stay humble as we go into this season because we're going to get the best game out of everybody," said Cole Hage, a fellow captain and rising junior along with Baldridge.

The midfield duo of Hage and Baldridge accounted for all the scoring in Hellgate's thrilling 3-2 Class AA title win against Missoula Sentinel. Baldridge struck first with a free kick that illustrated he can do more than just assist if called upon. Hage scored the game-winner in the 55th minute on a 1-on-1.

It was an unusual scoring frenzy for the two. Hage is a holding midfielder, usually focused on moving the ball up to the likes of Baldridge in the attack.

And Baldridge prefers to defer.

"I definitely like setting people up more, it just feels better to create something," he said. "The point of soccer is to score, but I like setting my team up."

***

If last year's title game was any indication, two of Hellgate's top weapons may be even more lethal and may add some extra scoring prowess to the likes of Sam Carnes, Rylan Compton and Will Dauenhauer. Those three combined to score 20 goals on the year, leading the team.

And just like Baldridge and Hage, they are all returning.

"I think the job this year is to keep everybody humble and just continue to play as a team," coach Anderson said.

"On paper, we have a lot of weapons, it's just a matter of 'are we going to put it together again?'"

Kyle Houghtaling can be reached by email at kyle.houghtaling@missoulian.com or on Twitter @khotel.

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