HELENA – When Carl Straub and the Helena High boys soccer program opened the 2018 season, the Bengals made a list of team goals. At the very top of that list? Qualifying for the Class AA state tournament for a fourth consecutive year.
Straub’s Bengals crossed that off the checklist in early October, finishing with nine wins, a pair of losses and a tie, while clinching the No. 2 seed in the Western AA, with it an automatic berth in this week’s state tournament.
“Definitely it’s been a successful season,” said Helena striker Aidan Morris. “We came in, our main goal was to make it to the state tournament and we exceeded our expectations. There’s always more growth to go. Now our goal is winning the state championship, so hopefully we can get that done.”
Helena High’s offense was one of the more powerful in the state this fall, scoring 42 goals, third-best among Class AA programs, while only allowing 19. This weekend’s state bracket is loaded with talent, including three-time defending state champion Missoula Hellgate, as well as undefeated Bozeman, but the Bengals believe they have one key advantage over each of the other seven programs.
“We have a lot of fight. That’s the one thing I think this team does better than any other in the conference or even the state,” said Bengals center midfielder Benjamin Ries-Roncalli. “We go out there and fight throughout the whole game and we go hard. I think we can use that and go far with it.”
“We have a lot of heart. Even though we’re young, we have a lot of heart,” added center back Cameron Wilcox, the third captain. “We’ve gotten our endurance and everything better, our skill and technicalities, stuff like that.”
All three captains, Morris, Ries-Roncalli and Wilcox, each a senior, discussed the importance of playing complete games in the state tournament, avoiding mental lapses and putting everything on the line. After all, each minute that ticks by brings them closer to the final seconds of their high school careers.
“We just have to go out there and fight. We have to put everything on the line, because after this it’s nothing. Even for the younger guys, next season isn’t for an entire year,” said Ries-Roncalli. “This is one of our best chances in a while to go get the trophy, so put it all out there.”
“It’s pretty crazy. Our final state championship in Helena, final weekend of soccer ever. It would be incredible (to win a state championship),” said Morris. “It would definitely be one of the highlights of my life. Soccer has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember, so to end it on that note would be awesome.”
“I think this has actually been my favorite season. I really enjoy playing with these guys,” added Wilcox. “Being a senior and being a captain for these guys is something else. It’s been quite an experience.”
While Helena High has been a state tournament staple in recent years, Helena Capital hasn’t been placed in the bracket for eight years, when the Bruins finished runner-up to the Bengals in 2010. Paul Patterson’s club grabbed the fourth and final seed from the Western AA, ending the skid.
“It means everything. I’ve had kids who graduated from this program and said, ‘We’ve never gone to state.’ One of the goals this year was exactly that,” said Patterson. “I had many of the seniors step up and say, ‘I don’t want this to be like some of the other guys’ senior years where we didn’t get to go to state. This would be really cool if we could.’ Everybody, including moms, we have a group of moms, got on board with this and they were confident all year long we would get to state, and I’m glad we’re able to achieve that.”
“I don’t know if I’ve quite realized how important this is to the program, in general, but I feel so honored to be a part of this team that’s accomplished so much,” said center midfielder Jonah Bibeau. “We’re going to go to state, and I think we’re going to do really well.”
The Bruins have arguably the most challenging task in the opening round, squaring off with 12-0-0 Bozeman on Thursday afternoon. The Hawks’ offense poured in 78 goals during the regular season, while giving up only three.
Bozeman did see its share of struggles in the preseason, finishing 0-1-1 with the loss at the hands of Helena Capital.
“We beat them once this year, we beat them in the preseason,” Patterson said of the Bruins’ 4-1 victory back in August. “Both teams have changed, so I’m not expecting that it’s going to be easy by any stretch. But if the boys give us 80 minutes and they play the kind of game they know how, we should do all right. I don’t always measure success on winning, but I think we have the ability to stay toe-to-toe with anyone, and that includes Bozeman.”
“I think we’re going to take it as the game comes. We’ll utilize set pieces as a real strength to our attack and play off the counter, mostly,” added Bibeau. “I think we have a lot of threat up top and winning balls in the back like we did (against Bozeman) in the preseason, but preseason is preseason. We’re not taking that as anything, and we’re just going to come in strong.”
“Bozeman has a good coach, they’ve been to the dance a lot of times, they have some experience where we don’t necessarily have that,” Patterson continued. “Being at home is a good thing. We don’t have the travel, we’re not staying in a hotel room, kids are in their own beds, so there are some advantages to that. Is that enough advantage to win? I don’t know, we’ll see.”
The Class AA state soccer tournament opens Thursday at noon with the four girls matches. Helena High and Helena Capital join the other six boys programs on the fields around 2:30 p.m.