COLUMBIA FALLS – On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Columbia Falls boys soccer team at long last re-emerged from the giant shadow forever looming from 10 miles to the west.
Kai Golan scored three first-half goals and the Wildcats – who finished runner-up to arch-rival and nine-time state champion Whitefish the past two seasons – dominated Livingston 5-2 for their first Class A boys soccer championship in 17 years.
Golan, who broke his back in the title game in Whitefish last year and wondered if he’d even play this fall, scored the team’s second, third and fourth goals. Columbia Falls then spent much of the second half on auto-pilot counting down the minutes until a long-awaited celebration.
“It’s like the best feeling in the world,” Golan said amid a giant postgame scrum mid-pitch. “It’s like on a mountain. I’m on top of a mountain right now.
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“There’s so much emotion it’s crazy. No feelings can describe it. Taking ‘L’ after ‘L’ in the championship to the rival school, it sucks. Now that we are the state champions it feels great. I didn’t want to lose this game. I wasn’t going to lose this game.”
That was evident from the get-go, as the Wildcats (15-0-0) dominated on the way to their first perfect record in school history. Almost the entire first half was spent in Livingston’s half of the field before C-Falls began substituting liberally.
The whistle sounds on Columbia Falls' first crown in 17 years. #mtscores pic.twitter.com/GGf14o4KuA— Jeff Welsch (@406welsch) October 30, 2022
“You saw it — after the whistle they were savages, they were starving for the ball,” said C-Falls coach O’Brien Byrd, who helped build the Whitefish dynasty before moving east. “They performed their best game of the season on the biggest stage.”
Senior Dale Blickhan broke the ice 22 minutes before Golan broke the dam with his powerful left foot and then closed the first-half scoring with a header. The outcome wasn’t a surprise inasmuch as the Wildcats were favored for the first time in three years – and would’ve been even if the opponent was Whitefish, which they’d finally defeated twice during the regular season.
Livingston, seeking its first crown in nine years, instead earned the berth by upsetting the Bulldogs 1-0.
“I was really nervous,” Blickhan said of the favorites role. “I had a lot of trouble putting down my food today. But once we got out there we were just flowing. I didn’t feel a lot of pressure then.”
It certainly helped to have Golan, a junior who spent six months in a plastic back brace, missed spring practice and still had significant back pain during two-a-days and after a summer scrimmage against Kalispell Glacier. He came within an eyelash of five goals, hitting the post on one shot and sending another just wide in a performance that left his summer pain far behind.
“I had some serious doubts in my mind, I’m not going to lie,” said Golan, who jokingly theorized that his scoring outburst was due to doubling his pregame dosage of Gatorlyte. “I thought, I’m not sure I’ll win a state championship. I knew we’d have a good team but I wasn’t sure I’d be part of it.”
Yet there he was, kissing the trophy, exchanging hugs with a crowd that surged onto the field, and conducting the first interviews of his career. It’s the culmination of a building process under Byrd that began when the current crop of seniors was in eighth grade.
“It’s hard when we don’t have the history that other programs do to remember successful seasons, the championships,” Byrd said. “The last time we won (1995) most of these kids weren’t even born. So it’s hard for them to conceptualize what it means to be a champion. You learn more from failure. It’s a cliché, but that’s the story of this team.”
Ryan Brown got Livingston on the board nine minutes into the second half, but any potential momentum was doused when Finley Sundberg answered for C-Falls about a minute later. Calvin Caplis scored with 15 minutes to go to cap the scoring for the Rangers.
It's the fourth state title overall for C-Falls, which defeated Billings Central in 2005, and Whitefish in both 2003 and 2001.
"It feels so good,' Blickhan said. "We’ll have our names up there forever.”