For the second straight year, the Bulldogs are state champs.
Whitefish took down Laurel 4-0 in the state title match, aided by goals from four different players.
Far different from the 6-0 beatdown the Bulldogs gave Laurel earlier in the season, Saturday’s championship was mostly a hard-nosed, defensive battle.
The Dogs got the scoring started with an Ian Lacey goal off a corner kick in the third minute to put Whitefish up 1-0 through the first half.
From there, the Locomotives held strong and kept Whitefish out of the net, even despite pulling their goalie for an injury late in the first half.
The scoring picked up in the second half.
Sam Menicke connected off a cross from Casey Schneider in the 55th minute for the second score of the game, giving Whitefish a little more breathing room defensively.
Then Schneider broke loose for a goal of his own in the 75th minute, beating the Locomotives’ goalkeeper one-on-one to open the lead up to 3-0.
Joshua Gunderson added the final goal in the 78th minute off a penalty kick.
Head coach John Lacey said he wasn’t surprised with the defensive battle that made up most of the match.
“We knew Laurel was going to give us a fight,” he said. “We knew they were a senior-heavy team, they were going to be proud on their own field, and they can play soccer.”
Despite a 1-0 halftime score and a relatively low goal count for his team compared to earlier this season, Lacey said he never felt like his boys weren’t playing their brand of soccer.
“Part of what we do is we know that it may not go in every time, but we just are going to keep being patient and efficient and not wasteful,” he said. “Eventually, whether it’s the corner kicks that we get or our other plays, it’s a hard thing to play against if we do the right things. We were doing those things, we just weren’t as clinical at the start.”
Lacey added that the key goal in the third minute came from a set corner kick play they’d saved all year just for the title match.
This is the Dogs’ second straight championship and undefeated season, and the program’s seventh state championship overall.
After the game, Schneider said while his class is graduating, this is just the beginning for the program.
“We’re just starting a dynasty, it’s the second year and we’re going to keep it going,” he said. “I have so much faith in the whole bench and all the guys that didn’t play today. They’re going to have a great season next year and we’re just setting the example for them. It’s been such a fun season. We’re just such a tightly knit team.”
While the team never wanted to get ahead of themselves with expectations, Schneider said another state title was always the priority.
“This was always the expectation. We never wanted to get overconfident. We were always working hard at practice, but we knew where we wanted to go at the end of the year and it just culminated the way we thought it would through a lot of hard work and Bulldog pride,” he said.
Lacey echoed those sentiments.
After falling to Belgrade in 2017 and defeating Polson in 2018, this state win marks three straight years of appearing in the title match.
It’s going to hurt losing this group of seniors, including Menicke, Schneider, Ian Lacey, Bradlee Anderson, Kaden de Yong, Joseph Houston, Colter Upton and Jeiven Pemberton, but the team returns a lot of playoff experience, Lacey said.
“We certainly knew this moment was in our potential a couple years ago. To be honest, I don’t see it ending,” he said. “We’ll miss this group of seniors for sure. It’s a great group of players, and their record in terms of goals scored this year speaks for itself. We’re going to miss that production and leadership. By the same token, we’re going to get bigger and we’ve got great numbers and a ton of experience coming up.”
“I’m going into next season with the idea that yeah, we want to be in this game for four years in a row,” he added.
Menicke, Schneider, Lacey, Ian Grover, Brandon Mendoza, Gunderson and Houston all earned All-State selections in addition to All Conference. Gabe Menicke was also named All Conference first team, alongside Chase Sabin and Marvin Kimera. James Thompson earned honorable mention.
As a team, the Bulldogs finish the season 15-0, a slight improvement over last year’s 14-0-1 record, and with another championship.
His team stuck to what works, Lacey said, and he couldn’t be more proud of his players.
“They’ve worked super hard. They haven’t trailed in a game for two years. Great senior leadership, just good guys, and we love playing and we love scoring. I’m really proud of them.”