GALLATIN GATEWAY — It’s hard enough to add new high school sports programs under normal circumstances.
But it’s especially challenging to launch new programs during a pandemic, as the coaches and administrators have learned at Lone Peak High School in the mountain resort community of Big Sky.
The Big Horns are set to kick off their inaugural Montana High School Association-sanctioned boys and girls soccer seasons this Saturday. But they won’t even be able to don their school uniforms, which haven’t yet arrived due to delivery complications stemming from both the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Laura.
“We have a solid backup plan,” said Tony Coppola, Lone Peak’s head boys soccer coach and one of the key figures behind adding the programs to the school’s athletic offerings. “The (Big Sky Football Club) that most of the team plays or played for has jerseys for us to use.”
The Big Sky Football Club (BSFC) helped spark Big Sky’s burgeoning soccer interest. The traveling program started in 2018 and has continued to grow as the Big Sky community has continued to grow. The high school currently has approximately 115 students, placing it in Class C, but enrollment is projected to increase to a Class B level within the next few years. Meanwhile, nearly 200 kids, kindergarten through 12th grade, played under the BSFC umbrella last fall, which is creating a great feeder program for the high school teams.
“We kind of struck while the iron was hot,” Coppola said. “With the formation of the Big Sky Football Club coupled with a lot of community interest, we lobbied for it. There was a lot of community members that came together. Lots of parents donated money and were able to put that money toward seed money to get the program up and running.”
“It’s a reality now, so it’s really exciting,” he added. “It’s been a long time coming. Since we were a Class C school, the logistics of making it a high school program took a little bit longer than expected.”
As the lone Class C school playing high school soccer in Montana, Lone Peak will compete at the Class A level this fall, joining Billings Central, Laurel and Livingston in the Eastern A. Billings Central’s enrollment last spring was listed at 319 students, Laurel’s at 613 and Livingston’s at 408.
Prior to this season, Class B Missoula Loyola was the smallest Montana school to offer soccer with 156 students last fall.
“We understand it will be a challenge to play schools who have these larger programs and a larger student population,” said Lone Peak athletic director John Hannahs. “But this is where the program is going to start, and hopefully it just keeps growing as the years pass on.”
Hannahs predicted that Lone Peak, which only opened its doors in 2009, would climb to Class B for the rest of its programs by 2022, citing recent numbers as evidence. Lone Peak graduated 21 seniors in the spring and welcomed 35 freshmen this fall.
Earlier this year, voters in the Big Sky School District passed a bond to expand facilities, which will include a new artificial turf for football and soccer games in the future. For now, the Big Horns will play their soccer matches at the Big Sky Community Park. That starts Saturday with a doubleheader against Livingston in what will be the season openers for both schools. The boys will play at noon and the girls at 2 p.m.
“It’s just such a weird time to start a soccer program with all the limitations of COVID. I mean, our first six games have been canceled because of it,” Coppola said. “We just want to get the program off the ground, I think we’ve done that. We want to be able to play some games and compete. We’d love to win some games, right? I’ve got some really skilled players and so does the women’s coach, Jaci Clack, but at the end of the day, just try to get a program that’s going to be sustainable up and off the ground.”
The boys have 13 players on the team, including five seniors, three of which have aspirations of playing college soccer, according to Coppola. Seniors Evan Iskenderian and Michael Romney will serve as the boys captains.
There are 12 players on the girls team, with senior Sara Wilson and junior Sophia Cone leading that group as captains.
Lone Peak also offers football and volleyball in the fall, boys and girls basketball in the winter, and golf, tennis and track and field in the spring. Of course, many athletes in the area have grown up around outdoor recreation, specifically skiing, which Coppola said lends itself well to developing soccer players.
“I feel kind of like the body type of the skier or the outdoor kind of adventure enthusiast kind of serves itself to soccer, right? They’re athletic, they’re fast, they’re obviously in good shape,” Coppola said.
“Big Sky has caught the soccer bug in a major way.”