High school rugby in Montana lives in the club ranks. That's partially due to the state's population numbers.
But a large contingent of the Bitterroot Valley's best prep athletes — and some of its toughest — are set to take the pitch in the state tournament, held in Corvallis this weekend.
One of those rugby players, Michael Golden, is a household name for folks in Hamilton. The state placer in wrestling and all-state running back and linebacker has exuded the toughness synonymous with the sport of rugby throughout his high school career.
"Just like in football, he’s a little bit undersized, but he’s one of the tacklers and players in football and it’s the same thing in rugby," Bitterroot Valley Rugby Football Club president and the Bitterroot boys' coach Boyd Kanenwisher said of Golden. "At 145 pounds he’s the best tackler in the state and yet he's 50 pounds lighter than most of them."
Kanenwisher also had high praise for Golden's sister, Haliegh, who headlines the girls' Bitterroot team, which is the defending state champion.
"She’s the best player in the state, you gotta keep your eye on her," Kanenwisher said of Haliegh.
Bitterroot Valley spectators will also want to keep a lookout for the Koa Wahines, as the girls' team is known. The Bitterroot Valley squad is the defending state champion after beating Kalispell last year. The Bitterroot boys were last season's runners up after falling to Kalispell.
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The Warriors, the Bitterroot boys' squad, boasts a talented roster that includes Golden, Darby's Nelson Smith and Florence's Zach Cather, who plays on a rugby national traveling team.
"Zach is the captain of that team (and) we said to put Mikey (Golden) in and just wait for him to start tackling. He had a run where he made three tackles in a row — it doesn't stop like football," Kanenwisher said. "We had been playing for just a month and they had kids at that tournament that had been playing since December.
"...That's what Montana has, we have a bunch of tough, tough kids and they're finally learning some good rugby."
Both Kalispell and the Bitterroot squads are back this year, along with Missoula and Helena on both the girls' and boys' side. The boys also have Simms in the tournament, which will battle in a play-in game Friday night at 6 p.m.
At this tournament, the four-team girls' slate will play the more fast-paced 7-on-7 version of rugby known as "sevens," while the boys will play the traditional 15 on 15.
Saturday's high school games start at 11 a.m. in Corvallis. There will also be a middle school state tournament. For updates on the schedule and locations, visit the Bitterroot Valley Rugby Football Club's Facebook page or www.bitterrootrugby.org.