Several prominent players from Bozeman and Hellgate have built strong relationships on and off the field. (Laura Ryan/Bozeman Lacrosse)

BOZEMAN and MISSOULA — In the living room of Hellgate attackman Jacob Richman, Bozeman defenseman Si D’Agostino finally inflicted a small measure of payback. And his teammates enjoyed every minute of it.

The precise method of the senior’s revenge: video games.

“After we played Hellgate, we went over to Jacob’s (Richman) house and were playing NBA 2K, and Si here is a god,” said Bozeman senior attackman Finn Vaughankraska. “We lost the (lacrosse) game, but Si wrecked them pretty good … it was nice to know that we don’t lose to those guys in everything.”

A few hours earlier, the Bozeman lacrosse team had pushed Hellgate harder than ever before. The Hawks even held the lead after the first half before the Knights came storming back for a 10-8 victory in Missoula on the last Saturday of April.

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After the game, D’Agostino, along with teammates Christopher Naumann, Finn Vaughankraska and William Cannon, met up with Richman and several other members of the Hellgate team.

“It was cool because they came over to my house right after the game and there weren’t any hard feelings,” said Richman. “We were more looking forward to hanging out afterward more than the game itself.”

That level of camaraderie, particularly between rivals, is hardly a common occurrence. But, after a whole summer spent as teammates, the four seniors from Bozeman and four members of the Hellgate team — Richman, Justin Lane, and Ben and Keaton Hayataka — formed strong bonds that have transcended competition.

Looking at the history between these two programs, it’s hard to believe that these guys would ever get along.

Since lacrosse became a state-wide club sport in 2010, Bozeman has traditionally been the second-best team in the state of Montana, but Hellgate has been the gold standard. The Knights have won the past five state championships with ease, including a dominating 18-2 win over the Hawks in last year’s final.

“They’ve always been able to throw it in our face, which sucks,” D’Agostino said.

For Kevin Flynn, the task of bringing together all of the talent from across the state onto one team presented an opportunity to accelerate the growth of the game in Montana. Previously, Flynn was a player and a coach for the University of Montana when the program was shifting from a college beer league team to the consistent MCLA Division I club program that it is today.

After coaching travel club teams at the youth and high school level, Flynn served as the head coach at Hellgate high school until last season. He then accepted a position as the coaching director for all levels of the Bozeman lacrosse program.

As he continued to become more involved in the sport, Flynn managed to build relationships with Casey and Ryan Powell, two of the sport’s all-time greats. Under the Rhino organization, the Powell brothers have built summer high school club programs in Oregon, Connecticut and New York. Once they spoke with Flynn, they integrated his summer club program under the Rhino banner in Montana and named him as its director.

“The team kind of picks itself because there are pockets of players that are ready to take things to the next level on high school teams all over the state,” Flynn said. “We try and get all of those kids together to try and represent the state at big tournaments across the country, and we’ve had some nice success.”

For kids that want to take their game to the next level, the appeal of joining a select team like Rhino is obvious.

“It’s the only way I’ve got in touch with college coaches and traveled to play lacrosse outside the state,” said Cannon, Bozeman’s long-stick midfielder.

Added Richmann: “We played a bunch of tough teams out-of-state, which is competition you can’t really get here in Montana.”

Identifying the state’s best talent is the easy part. Bringing that talent together and creating a cohesive, competitive team in just a few weeks is a significantly more difficult undertaking. At the beginning of June the players come together for a small mini-camp that lasts several days. After that, it’s only a few hours of on-site practice time before the start of each out-of-state tournament.

So how did the players from two programs with such a one-sided history put aside the past?

“If you play lacrosse, a lot of guys have similar personalities,” Cannon said. “We’re all aggressive, but we try to strike a balance between being competitive and not taking things too seriously, especially with the Hellgate guys.”

Flynn also believed the collective attitude of these players helped break down any animosity that might have previously existed.

“The best players from opposing teams are always matching up, so they know each other a lot of times before we start in the summer,” Flynn said. “I think they recognize that they need each other to get better. … Right away, these guys knew they were in this together.”

In terms of the bigger picture, Flynn believes that the overall example set by this team will continue to fuel the growth of the sport across the state.

“The way that they work and learn when they travel out of state, they feel the burden of representing Montana and trying to pave the way for the younger kids in the future,” Flynn said.

As soon as the intense and extensive schedule kicked off, the positive connections between these teammates, both on and off the field, only increased. In 10 whirlwind weeks, these players traveled from California to Illinois, and many locations in between to take on some of the best competition in the country.

“For me, it was the Chicago trip,” Vaughankraska said. “You’re all in the same hotel, and when we had free time, we took the train downtown and walk around and hang out getting to know guys you didn’t know before.”

All of that practice time also forced the players to push one another to get better on the field.

“You really get to know how those guys play,” said Naumann, a Bozeman senior attackman. “So when you play against or with them, you know their tendencies, and you can plan around their strengths and weaknesses.”

After all of the practices and games spent as teammates and opponents, the players are ready for a championship rematch between the top two seeds in this year’s tournament.

“We didn’t play our best game against Bozeman the first time,” Richman said. “We’re going to come with a better effort this time.”

As for the guys from Bozeman, they might be even more eager to dish out some real payback on the field.

“You want to beat your friends, especially because they’ve always come out on top,” Naumann said. “Of course we’re going to stay friends, sure, but as soon as you get out there on the field, it’s no holds barred.”

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