Big Horns fall to Wildcats in quarterfinal playoff game
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The Lone Peak High School boys soccer team stepped out onto their home turf on Oct. 16 for the first high school playoff soccer match hosted in Big Sky. Under a beautiful blue sky, the Big Horns battled the Columbia Falls Wildcats in an emotionally charged game, but snowy hills in the field’s background foreshadowed the end of more than one season.
After the program’s first playoff win against Billings Central earlier that week, the Big Horns went down 3-0 to the Wildcats, a team they tied with during the regular season. The game was hard-fought and physical, with match-long tension peaking with a short-lived brawl between a Big Horn and a Wildcat near the end of the second half. Nevertheless, the Big Horns hustled until the final horn, despite getting shut out.
“I’d say emotions were running high today, on both sides,” said LPHS Assistant Coach Jeremy Harder, who took the coaching reigns for the game in Head Coach Tony Coppola’s absence.
Play during most of the first half stayed around midfield, with neither team touting a clear advantage early on. With the help of aggressive ball movement by sophomore midfielder Cash Beattie and sophomore forward Trygve Wikan, the Big Horns were able to push the ball toward the Wildcats’ goal, but a handful of breakaways provided the Wildcats with more scoring attempts than the Big Horns.
Senior defender Kyan Smit and junior defender Max Romney were a big presence early on, keeping the Wildcats’ fast-paced offense at bay.
Smit and Romney displayed leadership and active communication throughout the game. On several occasions, Smit yelled from the back of the field “Come on black, let’s win this one!”
With roughly 11 minutes remaining in the first half, Wildcat junior forward Findley Sundberg broke through the Big Horns’ defense and scored.
After the first goal was scored, competition heated up. Several fouls interrupted play throughout the game, and on a few occasions the referees instructed players on both sides to “settle down.” In his steady moves to push the ball toward the goal, Big Horn senior forward Tony Brester took a few rough checks by Wildcats defenders.
As the end of the first half closed in, the Big Horns attacked the ball more aggressively on defense, and Beattie took to bigger, riskier shots at the goal on offense. The half ended with a shot by Columbia Falls, deflected off Romney’s head into the hands of Big Horn sophomore goalkeeper Sawyer Wolfe.
Both teams came out into the second half energized. The Wildcats advanced the ball several times on offense, but big saves by goalkeeper Wolfe kept the Big Horns’ chances intact. With about 21 minutes left in the match, Wildcat sophomore forward Kai Golan scored.
Down 2-0 and with 17 minutes of play on the clock, the Big Horns fired up, pulling off a few steals to stifle the Wildcats’ offense for a few minutes. Beattie had a few more attempts at the goal for the Big Horns offense, but none found the inside of the net.
The Big Horns’ momentum was halted when Romney took a ball to the face, pausing play and benching him for a few minutes. With under 10 minutes remaining, the Wildcats scored another goal, securing a steady lead to bury the Big Horns chances late in the match.
Nonetheless, the Big Horns refused to let up. With about three minutes of play remaining, a tussle broke out between Big Horn junior defender Colter Marino and Wildcat freshman forward Max Everett. Both teams rushed in to break up the fight, and Everett received a yellow card.
When the clock ran out, ending the match and also the Big Horns’ season, the Big Horns players stepped out onto the field together to face a crowd made up of parents, community members and students waving signs of praise.
“I think today wasn’t our day,” Harder said. “Regardless of the outcome, I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.” Harder looked at his players with pride as they packed up their bags on the sidelines, calling them “respectful, good sportsmen.”
In the program’s second year, the Big Horns boys soccer team has made the playoffs twice, and this year notched a playoff win and hosted their first home playoff game. Despite being the sole Class C team in the playoff bracket this year, they’ve proved they’re competitive in a Class A league.
“We’re the underdog at every game,” Harder said. “We’re the Class C team that gets to run around with the Class A teams. I think now maybe some people will start believing in us a little.”
The Big Horns’ two seniors, Smit and Brester, said despite the loss, they were grateful for the chance to step onto the field and play.
“It’s always nice to come out and play with a great group of boys,” Smit said. “It really made me love the sport again.
Brester said his highlight of the season was their playoff win against Billings Central, a historic victory that will be part of the players’ legacy.
“I’m going to miss it, leaving all the kids that we grew up with,” Smit said. “But it’s nice knowing we’re leaving [the program] to them, because they’re going to take it somewhere, I feel it.”
After the sidelines started to clear and the field was still, the Big Horns players wrapped their arms over each other’s shoulders and walked off the field as a team, the scoreboard still lit above them.