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Bitterroot Retains Montana Trophy

  • 24 May 2019

Photo: Stephanie Geiser Photography

It was a challenging spring for Montana girls’ high schools, as a rough winter delayed the season and overall numbers supported a 7s, rather than 15s, competition. For defending champions Bitterroot KOA Wahines, it wasn’t until the state final that all of the parts came together against a young, talented Kalispell, but that culminating performance was enough for an overall fifth Montana championship.

Bitterroot is a club team that encompasses six small high schools in the valley, and as head coach Dana Cather explained, it’s been fortunate to enjoy good numbers, support and enthusiasm from the community. However, this year there was a dip in the roster and Cather, who first served as assistant coach for five years, pointed to a severe winter that delayed the season by a month and hurt the recruitment effort. Without those extra 5-6 players, Bitterroot only had 12 players this season.

But five of those players were key returners and although they rotated with injury this spring, they were crucial to the team’s advancement. Chief among them are senior leaders Victoria Foster and Lizzie Humphrey, the halfbacks who direct traffic; and prop Ivy Semple, a lead-by-example type who does the hard work in the middle. They all played 15s before the state transitioned to 7s two years ago.

Hayliegh Golden (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

“They all played the longest and team had to rely on that experience quite a bit throughout the year,” Cather said. “Haliegh Golden, a junior, is also a main player and brings speed and aggression to the field.

“We were blessed to add very talented and athletic girls, which is always nice,” the coach added. “They come from soccer, track, and we have one player – Eden Wallace – who is playing volleyball in college and wanted to play rugby in the spring.”

Eden Wallace (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

The state’s teams assembled for 7s tournaments on the weekends, and Bitterroot and Kalispell rose to the top of the standings, taking the top seeds to states.

“Lance Heavirland is Kalispell’s head coach,” Cather said of USA 7s captain Nicole Heavirland’s father. “They have good kids coming up. We’re returning three players next year but Kalispell is young and athletic, and they’ll be hard to beat next year.”

Bitterroot had weathered injuries during the spring, which was a challenge in terms of building consistency but also thrust the younger players onto the pitch for more field time. But by the time states arrived in May, the necessary personnel were healthy, and the culminating performance for which the team was waiting came to fruition.

Lizzie Humphrey (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

“When all of that experience is out there at once, it makes a difference,” Cather pointed to senior leadership being the difference-maker in the state championship win. “The rookies were playing all season, but when they were out there, you saw it all come together and really gel. We never would have beaten Kalispell otherwise. They have enough talent that there was no way that one girl was going to dominate that team.”

But there were some standout performances in Bitterroot’s title run.

Tori Foster (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

“Tori was the manager on the field,” Cather praised. “She directs traffic and tells everyone where they need to be. She wasn’t having any pain in her [injured] ribs, so when she’s healthy she makes a huge difference.”

The title marked Bitterroot’s fifth state trophy. The team had won the 15s title three years in a row, and then lost to Kalispell the first year Montana transitioned to 7s. The Wahines then won in 2018 and now 2019. It’s an impressive record, but the club has been left wanting in recent years. Now that the state doesn’t contest 15s for the girls anymore, certain opportunities are disappearing.

Ivy Semple (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

The Regional Cup Tournaments (RCTs) are the major selection venue for players into the USA age-grade system, and June’s Great Northwest Challenge in Boise is this area’s RCT. There will be no Montana all-star team in attendance, because there are no experienced pack players, and Cather – who asserted that he’d be the first to sign onto a girls’ all-star team – highlighted the safety concerns at that level. Bitterroot itself has experienced disappointment this season, having applied to the High School Club National Invitational Tournament in Salt Lake City but withdrawing after numbers couldn’t support the trip.

McKenzie Hayes (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

“They were sad and disappointed but understood that we didn’t have the required 21-22 players or two full front rows to compete,” Cather said. “You want to give them that experience. If you’re coming from the more rural programs you can see what’s out there. ‘Holy smokes there’s more to this rugby than what we see here in Montana. There are more opportunities.’”

Bitterroot seniors (Stephanie Geiser Photography)

Cather is hoping to assemble an all-star 7s team for the NAI 7s in Salt Lake City in August, and there have been talks with Rocky Academy in Texas to potentially get some players on an elite squad and travel to competitions. Next-level rugby is certainly on the players’ radars, as alumnae are currently playing at Montana State, Utah State and BYU, and doing well. They stay in contact with Cather and the team.

“That’s the fun part for me,” Cather said of players who continue to play after high school. “They go on and take those life lessons you get from being part of a team. They enjoy the camaraderie of the team, but they also learn that you can do hard things and do well in life.”

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