HELENA — Arguably the biggest storyline for the Class AA soccer tournament beginning on Thursday is the Missoula Hellgate High boys team's quest for their fourth consecutive state championship.
If the Knights are successful, it will be the first four-peat by an AA boys team since the sport was sanctioned by the MHSA in 1991.
Entering the tournament, the Western Conference’s top-seeded Knights are just the third boys team to win three state titles in a row.
Missoula Sentinel was the sport’s original dynasty in Montana, when the Spartans captured the first three state tournaments contested from 1991-93. Hellgate coach Jay Anderson was a member of the last two of those crowns as a freshman and sophomore for Sentinel.
The next three-peat wasn’t achieved again until 20-years later when Bozeman reigned from 2012-14, directed by coach Hunter Terry. Their third crown was a 1-0 wuin over Hellgate in the 2014 finals.
Terry – who has compiled a nine-year career record of 104-21-8 for an .832 winning percentage – directs an undefeated Bozeman group at Siebel Fields this week that sits on the opposite side of the bracket as the Eastern Conference champions.
Hellgate became the state’s third boys dynasty; edging Helena 1-0 in the finals in Kalispell in 2015, crosstown Sentinel 3-2 in 2016 in Billings and then last year over Glacier 4-2 in overtime in Missoula.
If the Knights can attain their fourth straight crown, they’ll be just one shy of the overall AA record of five consecutive titles, held by the Helena Capital girls from 1996-2000.
And speaking of overall championships, Bozeman leads the AA with 12 combined total crowns (8 girls, 4 boys), followed by Capital at 10 (8 girls, 2 boys), and Helena’s seven (4 boys, 3 girls).
Hellgate former teammates
Hellgate's two coaches – Anderson and Hellgate girls coach Ian Marshall – are the only two coaches in the state tournament who were also high school teammates.
Anderson played for Sentinel from 1992-95, while Marshall was two years younger, from 1994-97. They both played for Skagit Valley Community College, although at different times, and Marshall went on to play at California’s Chico State College.
Anderson has been the Knights boys coach since 2003, compiling a career record of 153-36-31 (810 winning percentage). His teams own four state crowns, the first in 2011, and two runners-up.
Marshall is in his fourth season, having guided the Knights to two state tourneys.
“Ian and I have been good friends for over 25 years, we played high school and club together,” said Anderson, adding he’d rather talk about his players than himself. “We actually still play old man city league soccer together, too, and still have the same group of soccer friends that we did when we were teenagers. The best thing about Ian is that he’s always willing to learn and ask questions.”
He described how Marshall “wants to give the girls the best possible experience” because of his passion for the game and his belief in his team.
“It has been a huge benefit for me to have a friend with Jay's level of experience and expertise,” Marshall said. “And he’s always happy to help me out and help me develop as a coach.”
Straub, Cannon pioneers
Among the longest tenured coaches in the state tournament are Carl Straub with the Helena boys, and Bozeman girls coach Erika Cannon. Both coaches talked about the beginnings of the sport in Montana, compared to where it is now.
Cannon is in her 23rd season with the Hawks, and has amassed a state record for wins at 252-36-38 for an .875 winning percentage. Her teams have appeared in 12 AA title games, winning six championships and placing second six times.
“When I first started coaching at Bozeman in 1996, I had lofty goals on how the game should be played, and everyone was kind of downplaying how good Montana soccer could be, because they were new to it,” said Cannon, who played her prep soccer at Sacramento, California, before a college career at Cal Berkely. “But what I found out was, even though they didn’t necessarily have the same soccer skills, Montana kids were great athletes, who worked hard and willing to go extra lengths to make themselves better.”
Cannon arrived on the Montana scene at the beginning of Capital coach Rick Thompson’s five consecutive championships – her very first year the Hawks lost to CHS 2-1 in the 1996 finals – and recalls being impressed with the intensity level of play and the commitment to winning, while watching a crosstown match between Capital and Helena.
“The biggest changes in the sport since then are the technical level, the skill sets have improved, and the tactical knowledge of the game,” she said. “And you have more coaches that have played the game … a former player’s understanding of the game makes a difference.”
Straub got in the ground floor of MHSA soccer, coaching the first three years of the sanctioned sport at Bozeman from 1991-93. He later coached Capital (1999-2004) and now Helena (2005-present).
While with HHS, Straub lined up across the pitch from two former players that became Capital’s coaches. One being his own brother Pat Straub (at Bozeman), and CHS alum Glen Wall.
Now in his 22nd season of prep soccer, Straub brings a lifetime record of 205-87-45 (.685 winning percentage) into the tournament. His teams have garnered three state titles with CHS (2001) and HHS (2007, 2010), and a combined total of 12 top-three state trophies.
There just six schools that started playing the sport in Montana; Helena, Capital, Bozeman, Missoula Sentinel, Big Sky and Hellgate. After about three years the Billings schools, Flathead and Butte came in, and the two Great Falls schools were the last AAs to join.
“John Hollow and (the late) John Driscoll laid the groundwork for the local soccer scene,” Straub said, referring to the first Helena and Capital coaches. “They promoted it and publicized it, and made sure the sport didn’t get shoved under the mat.”
He pointed out that Missoula and Bozeman had their own early soccer advocates, as well – guys like Missoula’s Gary Stein – and that Bozeman athletic director Scott McDonald (now with MHSA) became a supporter and learned to appreciate the sport.
“And Joanne Austin (recently retired from MHSA) really put the game out there, that it was not just some foreign sport,” Straub said. “Jo made it respectable, and educated the administrators – she’s been a big supporter the whole way, and we miss her.”
Straub also mentioned the improvement of the quality of play, and the benefits of former players returning to their alumni and serving as assistant coaches.