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Laurel’s youth movement leads to title matches

Posted at 6:19 PM, Aug 21, 2018

BILLINGS – Most outstanding teams — no matter the sport — start playing together early.

For instance, Billings Central’s soccer girls have won eight of the past 10 State A titles. It seems they’ve been on a field together since age 5.

But Laurel’s girls own two of the past four titles, including the most recent. And those champs are the first to admit their youth program is a big reason why.

“I have to give those guys kudos, all those coaches and parents who’ve spent hours and hours developing those kids,” Laurel varsity girls coach Aloma Jess told MTN Sports before a recent workout.

“And when I get them, they have all these skills and I try not to ruin them,” she laughed.

“It’s going to be a very exciting season,” said Jess. “We have a lot of young talent coming back and some new talent coming in.”

That could be an understatement. There were more than 20 players at Thursday’s workout. Among them, Jess confirmed eight sophomores and 12 freshmen. But last year’s state title team was also loaded with freshmen — a lot of them instantly skilled.

Those incoming skills haven’t always been there. Jess said she’s been coaching Laurel’s varsity since 2000 and remembers her teams absorbing an absolute beating season after season in the early years.

But when Tom Maack stepped in to lead Laurel’s youth program, the Storm, the tide started to turn. Maack played collegiately in Iowa before developing his young daughters and son in Laurel. That sparked fresh wisdom and work ethic for the program.

“Our Storm team is really good,” said center-mid Kaitlyn Dawes. “They teach us how to play soccer and the basics of it and stuff. It gets us prepared for high school so when we come in we’re already competitive and ready to go.”

“Growing up and playing on Storm helped us because we all played together,” agreed forward Paige Ventling. “And we just grew up playing with the same people so we’re really familiar with each other. And then coming in, just getting the high school experience. Everybody is already skilled and ready.”

This year’s sophomore class was Maack’s first group years ago when he started coaching them in the second grade. Pat Cates and Matt Wagner have also been recent coaching catalysts for the Storm.

But this isn’t a youth program that demands players on the field everyday, 24-7, or one that travels to every tournament within a 500-mile radius. The Storm practices two to three times a week. Maack send players off with some light homework and encourages kids to play multiple sports. The result: Laurel’s youth soccer movement has played in the past four girls state championship matches.

“I expect us to get back to the state championship game,” said defender Jaela Hoppel. “We’re a really good team and we work together well, even though we have a lot of new incoming (players).”

“Yeah, the sophomores are really good,” forward Aspen Cotter said. “There’s still a lot of them. None of them really dropped out. But our incoming freshmen are really good, too. I think we’re honestly better than we were last year.”

Not the news Class A teams were hoping to hear.