By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
WHITEFISH – The inaugural Lone Peak High School varsity soccer season came to an end Oct. 17 when the Big Horns fell to the Class-A Whitefish Bulldogs on the road, 3-0. But the LPHS boys’ and girls’ soccer programs made history in their first season, becoming the lone Class-C school in Montana to field varsity teams.
The Big Horns earned a playoff berth, finishing the regular season third in their conference with a record of 2-3-2. When they traveled to Whitefish to face the undefeated Bulldogs, LPHS was clashing with a team with a 10-0-1 record.
Three early first half goals by Whitefish were the determining factor in the match, but LPHS created scoring opportunities and shut out the Bulldogs in a well-played second half.
“Whitefish is kind of like the Class-A powerhouse and we definitely played well,” said Lone Peak Head Coach Tony Coppola. “We definitely kept up with them.”
LPHS’s final record was 2-4-2, while the Lady Big Horns finished their season at an 0-7-0 mark, but that doesn’t include two friendly matches that they won.
“Years from now, I hope they take a lot of pride in the fact that they started the program here in Big Sky,” said Big Sky Futbol Club founding member and coach Kim Dickerson.
Records aside, Coppola said the success of the programs should be measured by the progression of the athletes and the camaraderie that they developed while representing their school and community.
“I would say that we exceeded the school, the community and the coaches and the players expectations,” he said. “Overall, it was a total success and I think what it’ll do, is it gave us firm footing to continue the program for years to come.”
LPHS Athletic Director John Hannahs said the squads caught a number of larger schools off guard.
“I think that both teams surprised a lot of people with how well they competed against the bigger schools, both teams got wins this season and the boys made it to the first round of the playoffs, so I would call that a great year for our first go [around],” Hannahs said.
The winding road that led to the formation of the LPHS varsity soccer teams was at least 12 years in the making. Coppola said that while he and Lady Big Horns Head Coach Jaci Clack coached the Bozeman Blitz club teams, they had discussed launching varsity teams at LPHS, fueled even more by a continually growing community wide interest.
“That’s always been the end goal, just to get this program at the school,” Coppola said.
Big Sky’s soccer enthusiasts received a welcomed addition to the community in June of 2018 when BSFC was founded. Dickerson, also the former BSFC programs director, recalled that the motive was simple: Bozeman offered the nearest soccer programs and high school-aged athletes were left without a team in fall when school started back up.
“Kids were having to drive into Bozeman to play on soccer teams and in the fall most of the kids who were in high school couldn’t play on any clubs because there weren’t any club teams for them [since] all those kids went and played for their high school team,” Dickerson said.
Coppola and Dickerson spearheaded the first BSFC team in the fall of 2018 to serve high school-aged athletes in Big Sky, giving them the opportunity to play soccer. That coed team rostered 15 athletes and was the only one offered by BSFC at the time.
“Soccer depends on others to put the ball in the back of the net, so it’s just teaching kids how to get along with others and enjoy getting out and playing a game that I grew up loving to play,” Dickerson said. “So to be able to pass that along to other kids is exciting.”
In spring of 2019, BSFC’s participation ballooned to 112 athletes split among seven teams, serving players ranging from 4 years old to 19. Then the pandemic hit. BSFC did not host a spring season in 2020 due to COVID-19, but participation in the 2020 fall season increased again to 130 athletes and 10 teams.
Dickerson recalled the deep community interest she witnessed in the varsity program this season, one that trickled to BSFC participants.
“It was really fun seeing our little kids leave practice and then go and watch the high school kids in the afternoon,” she said.
Dickerson is thrilled for LPHS’s varsity soccer program and believes it will bode well for the continued growth of both BSFC and the LPHS programs moving forward.
“Now kids know that they can play, kind of when they’re itty bitty, all the way up through high school and hopefully beyond,” she said.
Logistically, it took some heavy lifting to make the varsity programs a reality, according to Hannahs.
“First, we had to determine if the [Montana High School Association] would approve another team into Class-A soccer at all, especially with our school being Class-C according to our enrollment, so we had to prove that we had a sustainable program,” he said. “Of course when we were approved came the question of scheduling, where to get officials, navigating new regulations, outfitting a new team with uniforms and equipment, finding a place regulation size to practice and host games, etcetera, the list goes on and on.”
Hannahs said Coppola was instrumental in assisting with necessary behind-the-scenes tasks such as placing equipment and uniform orders and receiving permission from the Big Sky Community Organization for the teams to play at the Big Sky Community Park facilities this season.
Coppola says the effort was worth it, adding that his efforts were all for the students.
“I would do it again … next season or for the next five seasons, I don’t really care,” he said. “That’s where the level of dedication is on my end and definitely [Clack’s] too.”
Being the only Class-C school to field a team, coupled with the fact that Class-B schools don’t hold competitive varsity seasons, allowed LPHS to make the leap to Class-A soccer, according to Hannahs. Hannahs is encouraged by the participation and looks forward to future growth for the teams, even as he praised the squads in their inaugural season.
“This year’s teams set the bar high,” he said.
With one varsity season in the books, Coppola said the future of soccer in the Big Sky community is bright. Speaking with palpable gratefulness in his voice, he thanked the LPHS athletes and the Big Sky community for their support throughout the season.
“I’m sure we surprised a lot of places,” he said. “It was remarkable and I can’t be happier with the kids and how it all panned out.”