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Billings Central defeats Laurel in championship shootout

The girls soccer teams from Laurel and Billings Central will vie for the Class A championship Saturday for the fifth consecutive season. Their match is one of three title matches in Billings and Laurel on Saturday.

BILLINGS — There will be an all-Billings final, an all-Yellowstone County final (again), and a final pitting a perennial power against a feisty first-timer.

Yes, it’ll be quite a Championship Saturday in Billings and Laurel area when three soccer teams defend titles they won last season.

Here’s a look at all three title championship matches, in order of their kickoff times:

Boys

Whitefish (14-0-0) vs. Laurel (12-2-0), 11 a.m., Laurel Sports Complex

Whitefish is in the championship for the third consecutive year. The the Bulldogs lost to Belgrade in their first attempt in 2017, but they knew it was the beginning of something great. Coach John Lacey started seven sophomores and freshmen in that match, so last year’s title run, which culminated in a 6-2 win over Polson and a 14-0-1 season, wasn’t too much of a surprise.

Neither is this season. The Bulldogs returned 10 of 11 starters, and have spent this season doling out a lot of playing time, thus developing a deep bench behind the experience. Three of the top five Class A scorers in terms of goals and assists are Bulldogs: Casey Schneider (17 goals, 14 assists); Sam Menicke (16 and 11); and Ian Lacey (14, 7). Whitefish has scored 98 goals, giving up just nine.

“Two years of not taking a loss is something that we’ve worked hard for,” coach Lacey said. “I think it flows out of the kind of soccer we play and our commitment to trying to get goals. Goals win games. That’s just the absolute truth. That’s where we spend our energy and we try to do that the right way.”

Conversely, Laurel is playing in the championship for the first time in program history. It’s been a steady climb to this level under sixth-year coach Leroy Vanderpool.

And, like Whitefish, the Locomotives were hopeful to get this far. Their roster is dominated by seniors, and Vanderpool said it was just a matter of time before the players grew into what they are now.

In fact, he said, the process took a little longer than he expected.

“They understand the game very well. But being aggressive and competing, they just kind of had to dig into that a little bit as they got bigger and got older and they became seniors,” Vanderpool said. “Their attitudes kind of flipped a little bit from being boys to being young men, I guess, in more of an aggressive we-want-it way. So I feel like it’s long overdue, to be honest with you, for the amount of talent we have on the team.”

The teams met earlier this season with Whitefish winning 6-0. Whitefish has won six boys championships, the most in Class A.

Girls

Laurel (13-2-0) at Billings Central (13-1-0), 2 p.m., Wendy’s Field at Rocky Mountain College

This is the fifth consecutive year the teams will meet with the Class A title on the line, and for Laurel, it’s the sixth straight title appearance.

The Rams and Locomotives have combined to win the last 11 state titles. Billings Central has won nine, including last year on penalty kicks in a shootout; Laurel has won two. The last time neither won the championship was 2007, when Belgrade took home the trophy.

Five of the classification’s top 10 scorers this season are either Rams or Locomotives, and the teams are a combined 26-3-0 and have scored 195 goals to giving up 17.

Really, for all Billings Central and Laurel have done the past decade, what more is there to say?

“I don’t (know), either,” Central coach Nolan Trafton joked when asked that very question.

Trafton is in his first season as the Rams’ head coach, but he was on the bench as one of Didier Ndedi’s assistants for the previous four title games. So Saturday, coaching in a title game as a head coach, will be a new experience for him.

As for the players? Well, even if it appears as the same-old, same-old, it isn’t.

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“Any game against Laurel isn’t just another game because of at what point the players are in their life,” Trafton said. “In high school, playing against a rival is really a big deal, especially when it’s the best rivalry in the state of Montana.”

Laurel coach Aloma Jess was also asked if she had anything new to say about the rivalry.

“Other than déjà vu?” she deadpanned.

Jess did add, however, that she thinks this year’s Laurel team is one of the most well-rounded she’s had.

The teams split during the regular season. Laurel won a rare, at least when these two teams play, high-scoring affair, 5-3, before the Rams took the second 2-0.

It wouldn't be a surprise, though, if things end up 0-0 in regulation like last year’s championship. There aren’t many surprises these teams can spring on one another.

“It should be a really good showing skill-wise, very competitive,” Jess said. “There shouldn’t be any blowouts.”

All that’s left to do is play it out on the pitch. Once again.

West (9-3-3) vs. Skyview (10-1-3), 5 p.m., Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium

For the first time since Senior topped Skyview 1-0 on a windy day in Helena in 2011, the Class AA girls final has an all-Billings flavor.

And it should be a doozy.

West is the only team to hand defending champion Skyview a loss this season, a 3-2 game that helped the Golden Bears claim the city title in head-to-head competition among the three Billings Public Schools teams.

Skyview beat West 2-0 in the first meeting of the two teams. 

The Golden Bears are also on a roll. They are unbeaten in their past 10 matches, going 7-0-3 in that stretch. That includes two road playoff wins at Missoula Hellgate and Kalispell Glacier. This season Class AA switched its state format from the traditional three-day tournament to home site matches for this season, and West coach Rob Zimmerman said that two long bus rides in the span of four days did his team some good.

“I think it was a benefit to us, because we talk about playing for each other, being a family, being there for each other and believing in each other,” Zimmerman said. “All that time we spent together we were just able to strengthen that belief and that bond that we have within our team.”

Skyview, though, has a chance to repeat for a multitude of reasons. While not as dominant as last season when they went 15-0-0, the Falcons still are a strong offensive team and are tough to break down defensively.

The Falcons have given up more than one goal in a game just three times this season, one of which was in the loss to West.

“Across the board, there are (individual) matchups that are going to be really, really fun to watch," Skyview coach Cameron Icenoggle said. "So it’s going to come down to who wins their individual matchups. You win more, you’re going to win the game.”

Both teams enter Saturday after 2-1 wins in the semifinals; West over Glacier, and Skyview over Bozeman. Part of the reason for the switch to a new playoff format was the potential for a team to play for a title in front of its home crowd. In this instance, both teams have that opportunity.

“There’s a lot of respect between the teams and I think it’ll be a fun one for the crowd,” Zimmerman said. “It’s kind of the perfect storm for the first year (of the format), so hopefully there’ll be a big turnout.”

Said Icenoggle: “It’s going to be electric. It’s going to be a wild one.”

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Email Mike Scherting at mike.scherting@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert

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