Missoula Sentinel was the surprise of Western AA girls¹ soccer last autumn, rising from sixth place in the regular season to win the consolation championship at the state tournament.
Coach Julio Morales and his Spartans hope to plot a steadier course this time around, although it won¹t be easy in a competitive conference that includes defending state champ Helena Capital, perennial power Helena High and a Kalispell club that, smarting from a playoff loss to Sentinel, figures to be much improved.
Missoula rivals Hellgate and Big Sky could also contend for one of the league¹s four slots at the state tourney, Oct. 27-29 at Helena.
Here¹s a quick look around the region:
Sentinel finished 6-7-4, with five of those wins coming in a postseason charge led by forward Danielle McQuinn and goalkeeper Grace Harris, a pair of all-state performers who signed with the Montana Grizzlies. McQuinn¹s eight postseason goals matched Sentinel¹s entire total in 11 regular-season games.
Their talent and leadership will be difficult to replace, but Morales can turn to six returning starters and six more letter winners. The leading returnees are senior forward Cory Costa, who had five goals last season, and senior midfielder Kirstie MacMillen, who had a goal and an assist in the state consolation triumph over Billings West. MacMillen was chosen all-conference, while Costa received honorable mention.
The other returning starters are juniors Kellyi Bensen, Kelsie McQuinn and Lauren Linford, and sophomore midfielder Allie Smith.
Either senior Mariah Morgan or junior Liz Austin will replace Harris in goal.
³I¹m happy with the players we have back, but obviously we lost some pretty significant pieces of the puzzle,² Morales said.
With eight returning starters and 12 seniors, odds are the Kalispell Bravettes won¹t miss state for a second straight season. The Bravettes depended mostly on juniors and sophomores last season while posting a 7-4-2 record. Nine of them scored at least one goal, and that experience should pay off for second-year coach Scott Warnell.
The headliners in a strong and deep senior class include Jelisa Guy, an all-state forward who scored a team-leading 12 goals, and all-conference defenders Theresa Gill and Heather Magnan. Also back are juniors Sarah Griffith and Annie Braseth, who combined for another 10 goals.
Coach Geoff Birnbaum, who guided Hellgate to its first state appearance in a decade, must replace four four-year starters and most of the Knights¹ goal scoring. Heidi Gaskill, a four-time all-state pick and the leading career scorer in school history, accepted a scholarship from the Montana Grizzlies. Also gone are all-state midfielder Leah Snyder, Katie Stevens and Kelsey Bernius.
Defense should be a strong point, however, with the return of Alyssa Bennett and Lauren Christian on the back line, along with senior keeper Amanda Combs.
Up front, the Knights will turn to forwards Margo Lentz (5 goals) and Ellen Seagraves, as well as midfielder Rylee Sommers-Flanagan.
³We should be better balanced in our play and, hopefully, in our scoring,² Birnbaum said.
Graduation stripped Big Sky of leading scorer Grace McCoy, yet another hometown signee for Montana, as well as athletic forward K.C. Dahlgren. Without their skills, Coach Matt Barrett¹s Eagles could be hard pressed to improve their 4-9 record.
Big Sky¹s top returnees are a pair of juniors, all-conference forward Ali Dombrouski and steady midfielder Haley Anderson. Senior Julee Christianson, one of the state¹s best all-around athletes, is another experienced midfielder. The Eagles also return senior defender Stephanie Seewald and senior forward Jessica Thornock.