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MISSOULA — One of the Intermountain Champions Cup's most intriguing soccer matches on Sunday took place far removed from the Bella Vista primetime turf. 

Far flung out on the swampy Field Two at Fort Missoula Regional Park, Missoula Hellgate's old guard of Peter Byrne, Peter Vandam, Ryan Sayler and Brody Kendall reunited with rising Knight seniors like Matt Baldridge and Cole Hage for an exhibition game. 

"It was fun being back. It's fun to see all the kids — well, they're not kids now —who were freshmen when I was a senior," Byrne, the 2016 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year, said. "They've grown into good players."

Neither side earned the bragging rights, though, as the alumni squad — coached by Byrne, who's nursing a shoulder injury — came back to tie the current Missoula Strikers team, 3-3. 

"It's definitely fun playing against these guys. I was on their team as a freshman and it was fun to play with them," Baldridge said. "You always want to win against them. It's kind of a bummer that we didn't put some of those away."

Hage agreed: "When I was younger, looking up to them, they were really good. They were all starters and I looked up to them for advice and for things to do. Having them come back and playing against them after I've learned from them was really fun. It was cool to show off just how much we've improved since they left."

The exhibition game between the Missoula Strikers squad and the Strikers alumni team was slightly modified from regular tournament play. The teams played 9-on-9 instead of 11-on-11 and moved the goals up to the 18-foot mark. 

The game started a little late to accommodate for stragglers too. Baldridge, who recently took home his second Montana Gatorade Player of the Year accolade, netted a goal from up the middle to start off the match.

Shortly thereafter, Missoula Big Sky's Andreu Ortiz Vila struck from the right side to extend the Strikers' lead to 2-0. 

But the alumni weren't going to go down without a fight. 

Former Missoula Sentinel Spartan Owen Winger — who currently plays midfield for the South Dakota School of Mines — rallied to score two goals to knot the match. 

Connor Flanagan, a senior defender for Hellgate, earned the Strikers' lead back, but Vandam tied it back up a few minutes later. 

"I came out of retirement. I haven't played a real game of soccer in like two years," Kendall said after the game. "Haven't seen a lot of the guys I played with in a while. It was good to get back out there. I'm pretty out of shape, but it was fun.

"We're a little washed up now."

A few days before the Strikers played in the President's Cup in Salt Lake City — they finished 1-2 — Baldridge earned his second Gatorade Player of the Year nod after guiding the Knights to their third-straight state title in the fall. (NOTE: Soccer is a spring sport in some states. That's why the award is presented in the summer.) 

"It's really fun just having Matt on your team," Hage said of his fellow captain. "He's such a good player and he pushes you in practice every day. We can push each other. He's such a good player and he's such a good leader. It's fun to play with him."

Baldridge is back at Hellgate for one more year — his fourth varsity season — and he's trying not to take his final high school season for granted. 

"Just playing with the guys one last season, trying to make it our best, I think it'll be pretty exciting," Baldridge said. "I love high school season because you're involved with your school and all your friends come watch. It's pretty fun."

The exhibition match was the Strikers' last game together before the high school season starts. 

Baldridge, Hage and Co. are coming off their third-consecutive state title for Hellgate — the run Byrne, Vandam, Sayler and Kendall's team started back in 2016 — and are looking for their fourth title. 

"It's exciting, but it's pretty nerve wracking only having one more chance," Hage said. "And having won three state titles before this and we have a huge target on our back. We've got a really good team and if we put in the work this summer, it should be a fun season."

Baldridge has high expectations too, but he knows it won't be an easy journey.

"We have the pieces to do it but we're definitely going to have to work for it," he said. "It would be amazing to win again, but we've got a long road ahead of us."

Fall practices for soccer gear up on Aug. 10 and Hellgate's first game is against Billings Skyview at noon on Aug. 25. The Knights' first home match is against Helena on Saturday, Aug. 30. 

Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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