Flathead capable of winning third straight title

Flathead capable of winning third straight title

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Don't get the wrong idea now that Kalispell has two high schools.

The Flathead boys' soccer team is still every bit as scary and capable of winning the Class AA state championship for a third consecutive year. The new school in town (Glacier) doesn't have incoming seniors, so the Braves have kept all but a few graduates from their 2006 squad.

In short, talent is not a problem at Flathead. But are the Braves still as hungry?

"Most of the players have a lot of pride in themselves and how they perform, so they're pretty intrinsically driven," second-year coach Eric Sawtelle said.

"We just need to keep them focused and motivated. But they play a strong role in that with their self-motivation."

Because his team has a wealth of experience, Sawtelle can spend more time on areas other than technique and execution. Two of those are team chemistry and mental discipline.

"I think we'll be able to bring a strong presence with our communication and speed, moving the ball," the coach said. "We'll see a good fast-paced dynamic."

The list of returning standouts includes senior keeper Jordan Vaughan, who keyed the Braves' 1-0 shootout win over Bozeman in the state title game last October.

The three players that scored goals in the shootout - defender Brendan Passmore, all-state forward Luke Fischer and midfielder Connor Cavigli - are also back for their senior seasons along with all-state forward Chresten Knaff.

Sawtelle looks for stiff competition from perennial contenders Helena and Helena Capital. Missoula Hellgate also has the pieces in place to make a run at one of four Western AA state tourney berths.

"Hellgate is our first game, so that will be a good indicator for us," Sawtelle said.

Hellgate fifth-year coach Jay Anderson returns 12 varsity veterans, including seven starters from last year. But the Knights must find replacements for four defenders lost to graduation.

"We have a core group of athletes returning as midfielders, including proven leaders and goal scorers in Bryan Nickerson and Garion Holian," Anderson said. "We'll have a lot of experience up front."

Holian earned all-state honors and was Hellgate's leading scorer as a junior. Nickerson earned all-league honors and was the second most lethal scoring threat on the 2006 team.

Other top prospects for the Knights, according to Anderson, include senior midfielder Cy Gilbert, sophomore midfielders Lucas Matelich and Jonah Brown, and sophomore defender Sam Snyder.

First-year Missoula Sentinel coach Gary Stein, who guided Hellgate for nine years and started the Big Sky program, inherits a team that finished 6-7 last season and lost a handful of standouts to graduation. Still, the coach is hopeful his team can turn a corner in 2007 with strong senior leadership and depth.

The Spartans showed what they were capable of last season in knocking off state champion Flathead, 3-0. Then-freshman Zhenya Potanin scored two goals in that game, and he will be dangerous this season along with senior Charlie Wellert.

"The players have been pretty compliant with the ideas I've brought in," Stein said. "They're already decent enough players. They just need a little more positive reinforcement for the things they're doing well, and a little more organization.

"Their work ethic has been darn good. They have a tremendous desire to be successful."

Stein is reluctant to single out any one player, or to label players by position. He wants his troops to have a team-first attitude.

"My preference is to play a passing game and attack out of the back, with a lot of wing play," he said. "We'll try to be a compact team but play fairly aggressively and maintain possession."

Missoula Big Sky fourth-year coach Shane McCorkle returns just three starters from a team that finished 1-12 last season. His team will look to seniors Lane Hamilton, Dylan Swallow, Ivan Lemeza and Ismail Baied for leadership.

Hamilton, a midfielder, earned all-state honors last fall. Baied is a newcomer who has looked good in practice.

"We return our top three scorers from last year," McCorkle noted. "But we are going to have to come together quickly as a team to be successful."

Ryan O'Rourke will direct the Glacier team in its inaugural season. He was an assistant varsity coach at Flathead last season.

O'Rourke has 25 players, none of whom are seniors. He will look to former Flathead team members Jared Rice, a junior midfielder, and Casey Haugen, a junior goalkeeper, to lead his young team.

"Things are going well," said O'Rourke, who played college soccer at Jacksonville (Fla.) University. "Of the teams I've coached, they're the hardest-working group. We're all excited about being part of a new program."

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