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Columbia Falls boys soccer wins first state championship in 17 years

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | October 31, 2022 12:30 PM

Kai Golan has a pre-game ritual where he drinks one Gatorlyte just before a match.

“Today I drank two,” he said with a smile. “Maybe it was the extra Gatorlyte in me.”

The junior had a hat trick in a matter of minutes to all but seal the state A soccer championship for the Columbia Falls boys as the Wildcats beat Livingston, 5-2, for the title.

It was the Wildcats’ first title in 17 years.

The last time they won one, the iPhone hadn’t even been invented yet.

All season long coach O’Brien Byrd has been imploring this squad to play like they were the No. 1 team in the state.

On Saturday, at home on Flip Darling field, they left no doubt.

The Cats were light on their feet and yet relentless. Dale Blickhan scored 20 minutes in on a feed by Max Everett to make it 1-0 .

Then Golan rattled off three straight goals in 10 minutes, scoring at the 26th, 31st and 36th minute. Blickhan got the assist on the first goal, Finley Sundberg had an assist on the other two.

It was 4-0 at the half.

Livingston showed they could be a dangerous team if they got near the goal, as Calvin Caplis scored for the Rangers 49 minutes in.

But Sundberg answered with a goal of his own on an assist by Golan a minute later.

Caplis would score again, but by then, Byrd had substituted his starters for the bench.

The Cats played stellar defense. It was rare for Livingston to get close to the 30.

Everyone played in the final for the Cats.

It was a season of records for the Columbia Falls, as they ran the table, going 15-0 for the first undefeated season in school history.

Byrd noted they broke the single season state A scoring record with 84 goals over those 15 games. Sundberg set the school record for most goals in a season with 24 and keeper Bryce Dunham tied the school record with nine shutouts set previously by keeper Lee Kizer.

Byrd had nothing but praise for the team, particularly the 10 seniors.

“They’re not just exceptional players and athletes, they’re exceptional leaders, exceptional role models,” he said. “That’s what high school sports is all about.”

Sundberg noted the struggles the team has gone through over the years.

“I’m ecstatic,” the senior forward said after the game. “We’ve been working for this for four years. The entire year we’ve just been growing.”

Golan had similar sentiments.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’m on a mountain right now. Having all that work pay off.”

Golan’s season, perhaps his entire soccer career, was in doubt when he broke his back in last year’s championship in a loss to Whitefish.

He ended up in a restrictive brace for six months and then had to ease back into play this year.

“I had some serious doubts,” he said.

He went through weeks of physical therapy, but was able to slowly return to the sport. He missed the first few games of the season, but kept working and getting better as the season progressed.

“I have so much love for the game,” he said.

Most of the team shaved their heads before the match in a tribute to captain Walt Nichols' late brother, Winslow.

Winslow Nichols, who was set to be a West Point cadet, died tragically earlier this year in a fall off Glacier National Park’s Mount Brown.

Winslow always had a shaved head, even when he played for the Cats in high school.

Byrd, in turn, had been growing his hair for three years since the Cats lost to Whitefish in the finals in 2020.

Last year the kids all had mullets for the final, but they didn’t want to have them this year. But Byrd kept his long hair for three years and hid it under a hat. He revealed the mullet when the final horn sounded.

While the team loses 10 seniors, including Sundberg, Blickhan, Nichols and Dunham, they also have a host of returning young players, not to mention Golan.

The junior varsity team and froshmore teams both had excellent seasons and the Cats also saw great play from underclassmen like River Wolford and Traic Fainter to name a couple more.

In short, the future looks bright for the program, which has taken years to get to this point. But now there is junior high soccer in addition to club ball. More and more athletes are playing the sport.

“We don’t rebuild,” Byrd said after the game. “We reload.”

For those wondering about the 2005 championship, it was against Billings Central in Billings. The Cats were up 1-0, but gave up the game-tying goal with 40 seconds left in regulation. But in overtime, forward Jake Bengtson bent in a free kick from near the end line after a Billings hand ball and the Cats won 2-1. Cory Pete, who was a key member of the team, is now the junior varsity coach for the Cats. The Cats were wounded warriors in that game. Pete had a torn knee ligament and teammate Dustin Gibson played with a fracture in his leg. Kizer was the keeper.

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Confetti left behind on Flip Darling Field moments after the Cat's victory in the State A title match. (JP Edge photo)

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Adam Schrader shows the team's path to success through the playoffs to the final. (JP Edge photo)

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Finley Sundberg bears a slide tackle from a Livingston defender on the sideline near midfield. (JP Edge photo)

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Kai Golan takes another shot at Livingston's goal on a fast drive. (JP Edge photo)

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Coach O'Brien Byrd watches his team compete in the final minutes of the championship match before the final whistle of the season. (JP Edge photo)

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Finley Sundberg celebrates a goal in the second half of the State A title. (JP Edge photo)

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Dale Blickhan performs a tackle against an incoming Livingston defender. (JP Edge photo)

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Kai Golan dribbles around a Livingston defender at the opponent's penalty box. (JP Edge photo)

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Senior Josiah Kilman takes on a slide tackle in Columbia Falls at the State A Championship on Oct. 29. (JP Edge photo)

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Dale Blickhan chips a shot at Livingston's goal from the corner on Saturday in the title game .(JP Edge photo)

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Senior Finley Sundberg dances with the ball on a drive in the early stages of Saturday's game. (JP Edge photo)

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Senior Adam Schrader battles with an incoming Livingston defender at Flip Darling Field in the State A title game on Saturday. (JP Edge photo)

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Junior Kai Golan finds the back of Livingston's net in the first half of Saturday's State A title match. (JP Edge photo)

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Seniors Adam Schrader and Nico Lang hold the State A title trophy after the victory over Livingston. (JP Edge photo)

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Senior Dale Blickhan emotionally embraces the State A title trophy after the match on Saturday. (JP Edge photo)

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After an undefeated season, Junior Kai Golan raises the State A soccer championship title trophy after the match. (JP Edge photo)

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