MISSOULA — The Missoula Hellgate boys soccer team is a staple in the state championship game, having played in the past six Class AA title matches while gunning for a seventh straight Tuesday evening.
But the Knights girls program achieved a milestone under first-year coach Natalie Hiller-Claridge last Friday when Hellgate defeated Billings West to advance to the Class AA semifinal round for the first time in program history.
After ending regulation tied 1-1, the Knights won 4-3 on penalty kicks, with junior Ashley Young providing the winning goal that sent the Hellgate players and coaches into a frenzy as the Knights, the fourth seed out of the West, continue their deepest playoff run in program history to date.
"This is huge, we've never made it this far," a jubilant Young said after Friday's win. "We've lost to this team (West) the two years before. Every time I've played them we've lost, so it's a really big deal for us."
Along with advancing further than any Hellgate team previously had, the Knights also took another step forward after beating the defending state champion Golden Bears. In the previous two seasons, West had halted Hellgate in the quarterfinal round.
Hiller-Claridge wasn't there as the coach when that happened, but her message to her team was clear.
"What I told the girls going into the game is, I've been hearing that you've played these guys three years in a row in the quarterfinals. And third time's the charm, but really that's a luck thing, and for us it wasn't about luck," Hiller-Claridge said after the win. "It was about the hard work, the determination and the skill, right? And so I said if we go into the game like that we're going to come out on top."
Now, Hellgate faces another tough challenge in Helena High when the two teams clash on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. in East Helena. Helena is the top seed out of the West and stands in the way of Hellgate as the Knights gun for their first state title game appearance.
The winner of Helena and Hellgate will take on Kalispell Glacier on Saturday in the state championship game. Glacier defeated Bozeman 2-1 in overtime on Tuesday in Bozeman.