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Big Sky girls soccer vs Helena 04

The Missoula Big Sky girls soccer team is hoping to return to the State AA championship match this season. In this photo from Tuesday, the Eagles' Daniela Rodli (14) battles Helena's Elsa Grebenc (22) for the ball. The teams tied at Big Sky, 3-3.

Fans of Missoula large-school soccer already have reason to celebrate this season.

That's because Class AA no longer has a state tournament. Instead, a knockout-style playoff like the one used in Class A will be used.

What does that mean for the fans? Come tourney time, you're going to see a lot more do-or-die soccer in Zootown.

Under the new format, playoff games are held at the home site of the higher seed with the winner advancing. Then the final is hosted by the highest remaining seed.

Two teams expected to vie for No. 1 seeds — by virtue of Western AA regular-season championships — are the Hellgate boys and Big Sky girls. Both were No. 1 seeds last year and advanced to the state championship matches in Helena before falling to defeat.

The Knights return a handful of starters from last year's 15-1-1 team. Leading the way are senior all-state midfielder Dane Becker and junior all-league forward Beckett Arthur, who was the second-leading scorer for Hellgate last season.

"Dane Becker is one of the best, if not the best, seniors in the state," Hellgate boys coach Jay Anderson indicated.

Other key returnees for Hellgate (1-0-1) are goalkeeper Brendan Oberg, defender Campbell Rolston-Clemmer and forwards Marcus Anderson and Reggie Duce.

"The Western Conference should be tough, with four or five teams vying for the top spot," Anderson noted.

The Sentinel boys (0-1-1) are looking to build on last year's sixth-place finish at state. The Spartans are led by veteran coach Gary Stein and dangerous attacker Jake Larson.

The Missoula Big Sky boys (0-2) are hoping to turn things around under coach Pat Beckwick. The Eagles have struggled so far, outscored 24-0 in their first two matches.

The Big Sky girls are off to an exasperating 0-0-2 start but expect them to be bounce back strong under coach Courtney Shields. The Eagles boast a lethal quartet of scorers in Hannah Santamaria, Whitney Morrison, Mazey Kasberg and Gianna Migliaccio.

Hellgate girls coach Ian Marshall, whose team moved to 1-0-1 with a 6-0 thrashing of Butte Thursday, says there's a lot of parity in the Western AA.

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"Last year the Western Conference teams were really even and I expect it to be that way again," he said. "Every game will be a battle.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how we grow as a team."

The Knights are led by all-stater Elaina Pierce, along with Maggie Gibbons, Sierra Tai-Brownlee and Ostara Alrescha. Hellgate has a new keeper in junior Sophie Pierce.

Sentinel coach Dan Lochridge has some rebuilding to do after losing six key players, including center midfielder Quinn Peacock, who now plays for the Montana Grizzlies.

"Our strength is our center forward (Aisley Allen) and our outside backs Reese Meyer and Erica Hege," indicated Lochridge, whose team is off to an 0-1-1 start. "They're three of the best players in the state.

"Our weaknesses will be our untested center backs and center midfielders until they get some experience. Once they do, we'll be very strong front to back."  

The Loyola Sacred Heart girls return nine starters from last year's Southern A champion team. Fifth-year coach Stephanie Reardon will look to senior forward Sydney Koppang and senior defenders McKenna Round, Erin Dahl and Carlin Lechner to set a tone. The Breakers also have a proven keeper in junior Megan Neuman and a super sophomore scorer in Lani Walker.

"(Neuman) is our leader on defense," Reardon offered. "We had a low number of goals against us last year and I look forward to what she will do this year.

"All the teams in our conference will be tough. Hamilton is always a great rivalry as well as Corvallis. It will be interesting to see who takes conference this year."

The Loyola boys have started a new era under coach Eric Konzen.

His team dropped its home opener to Bigfork, but junior transfer midfielder Jace Kruer has proven he can put the ball in the back of the net. The Rams have four seniors, including keeper Danny Kaleva, Gharret Diehl, Alex Kirkus and Ray Morgan.

"We have seven players with a lot of soccer experience, so we've got a lot of chemistry," Konzen noted. "

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Bill Speltz is in his 13th year as Missoulian Sports Columnist. He also guides the sports dept., scheduling day-to-day coverage. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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