When autumn prep sports are mentioned in Frenchtown, chances are that folks are talking about the heralded football program.
Being a traditional gridiron powerhouse, the Broncs football team has long been the focus in Frenchtown when the leaves on the trees start to change and temperatures begin to plummet.
That’s why the recent accomplishments of the the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams in Frenchtown are so remarkable.
Both soccer programs made their debut in 2007 as the football team was coming off back-to-back State A championship appearances. And it’s not a reach to believe few in town gave little notice to the fledgling soccer teams, which played their home matches in Missoula and practiced on what were then dirt fields at the school.
At the time there was no youth soccer in Frenchtown, so many of the original Broncs soccer players were complete novices. As a result, a predictable lack of success followed.
But fast forward six years later to this fall.
The boys’ team earned its first Southern A championship with a 7-2-2 overall record and will host Eastern A third seed Belgrade in a first-round playoff match at 1 p.m. Saturday.
A year after finishing the season 0-10-0, the Bronc girls claimed the Southern A’s third seed with a 4-5-2 mark and will travel to Billings Central for their first-round contest at 10 a.m. Saturday.
To put it mildly, Frenchtown soccer has come a long way from its lonely beginnings.
“I don’t think it was truly as much about resistance to it as much as it was about almost a fear of the unknown,” said girls’ head coach Erika Bidlake, who like Frenchtown boys’ coach Kirk Gammill has been with the program since Day 1. “People here didn’t know a whole lot about soccer and kids here hadn’t grown up playing soccer. So there just wasn’t a heavy influence.”
Gammill, an Idaho native who played three years of collegiate soccer at Humboldt State in Northern California, didn’t realize when he took the job that he was about to launch a soccer program in a football-first community.
“I’ll be honest and tell you that it never crossed my mind,” he said. “It was when I actually got out here coaching that I realized what a football town this was. But when I took the job, I had no idea. When I started in the fall, it made perfect sense and I realized that’s why I only have 12 kids. There were 100 kids trying out for football and I’ve got 12 on the soccer field.”
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The early days of Frenchtown soccer were lean in terms of the number of participants and wins.
From 2007-2010, the boys went a combined 4-28-3 before going 5-6-1 a year ago and reaching the state semifinals.
“When they were hiring, they told me that they wanted someone there who didn’t care if they didn’t win a game in the first couple of years,” Gammill said. “They wanted someone who was going to stick with the program and be comfortable with the fact that you might only get 12 kids and half of them might never have played soccer before. And that’s exactly where we started six years ago.”
Bidlake recalled how once the groundwork was in place, the real work began in earnest.
“So it was like, this has finally come to fruition and we finally have a team, but we don’t even have a field,” she said. “It was just a big dirt lot. So I want to say that for our first two years we were playing our home matches at Fort Missoula and the parents in collaboration with the school got that field (at school) plowed and seeded and really made it happen.”
It may not have always been reflected in the standings, but things got better. Both programs grew in numbers and each began to get a taste of success.
But last fall, the Frenchtown girls took a step backward. They struggled mightily in losing all 10 of their matches and did so without scoring a single goal.
At the onset of the current campaign, Bidlake remembered how members of her team were setting modest goals for the season. But a freshman spoke up and demanded her new teammates aim higher.
“As we sat down at the beginning of this year the girls were talking about what they wanted to happen,” Bidlake said. “You would hear things like how they wanted to make good passes or to score a single goal this season. There was one player who said that wasn’t OK and that she wanted to win games. That was Abbey Teagle and once we beat Loyola, that was really big in building confidence in the girls.”
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Both coaches have been thrilled by the success the teams have earned this season and each noted there’s a strong bond between the girls’ and the boys’ squads.
“The boys’ and girls’ varsity play one after the other,” Bidlake said. “So each team is each other’s biggest fans. That’s going to be a big challenge for both team this weekend to not have the other one there cheering them on. I know it will be a challenge because they really do cheer each other on. They really do encourage each other in a big way.”
Growing a program in six trying years is no small feat. And it’s a credit to the hard work put in by both Gammill and Bidlake.
But Gammill noted that all the coaching and preparation in the world would make little difference if it wasn’t for a special group of kids who take that instruction and somehow make it happen on the pitch at game time.
“It’s a credit to the kids,” he said. “For any athletic team out here, these kids are just tough, determined individuals, whether they’re playing basketball, soccer, football or whatever. I think that’s just kind of a testament to this community and these kids out here. I’m blown away with these kids.”
Reporter Michael Heinbach can be reached at 523-5209, at email@example.com or @MichaelHeinbach.