For decades, soccer in the Flathead Valley has continued to grow to unprecedented heights. Dynasties have been built in local high school soccer programs, as three different teams (Glacier Girls, Whitefish Boys, Columbia Falls Boys) have won Montana state championships since 2020. On the club side, the valley has sent four teams to the USYS Far West Regional Event in the past three seasons. Today, two pillars of our local soccer community are taking the next step as the Whitefish Rapids and Flathead Soccer Club are merging into Flathead Valley United.
Starting this Fall, Flathead Valley United (FVU) will be offering comprehensive soccer programming for the Kalispell and Whitefish communities from the recreational level through the senior competitive programs; the Rapids will continue to operate primarily in Columbia Falls in close partnership with FVU. FVU Executive Director Damion Blackburn believes this important step is more about streamlining and less about wholesale change.
“This allows us the opportunity to make sure that the pathway is a little bit easier to understand,” said Blackburn. “It enables us to really have a complete package with regard to everything that we do from programming to staffing. In previous years there has been shared staffing between organizations and now there will be one organization, one message, one vision, a continuous ethos of pathway for every player throughout the programming all the way from recreational to competitive.”
One of the biggest proponents of the unified approach for our Valley soccer communities has been current Rapids board member and FVU staff coach John Lacey. Starting his Whitefish soccer journey back in 1998 as an assistant coach with the Whitefish Bulldogs, Lacey has been a constant in an ever-evolving Whitefish soccer scene, serving as a coach with the Whitefish Sting and Glacier United, prior to the conception of the Flathead Rapids.
Lacey began his second stint with the Bulldogs in 2015, this time as Head Varsity Soccer Coach, and helped guide the Bulldogs to 4 consecutive Montana Class A State Championships from 2018 to 2021. For a coach who has witnessed some of the highest levels of soccer in Montana history, Lacey has a fervent belief that the FVU merger will bring northwest Montana soccer to even greater heights, by offering a pathway for every player.
“We are not big enough to be a Seattle or Denver where we can always count on enough kids to support that level where every player is,” said Lacey. “So what FVU has facilitated is it has given all of these players an opportunity, whether it is at a high end or if it is just the desire to continue to play in an off-season in preparation for a highschool season. What families have liked is the knowledge that we are doing this together.”
As an original Rapids Board Member and long-time high school coach, Lacey fully understands the competition in the Fall that will always take place between local communities, but he has also seen first hand the foundational relationships that have been built through the club environment.
“For those of us who are in this realm where we are spending time with these kids and trying to support their development on all kinds of levels, those bonds are so powerful in ways that have nothing to do with soccer,” said Lacey. “There are both special moments of celebration and unfortunately tragedies, too, that these kids experience in their local communities. I have seen especially in recent years that, in both instances of high and low, teammates throughout the club season show up for one another. That’s so critical, and in the end soccer is just one part of the deeper bond and unity being shared. ”
As our communities take this next step together in a shared pursuit of growth in the game, Blackburn stated a level of excitement for the future as well as reverence for the past.
“This is so exciting, it is a culmination of a lot of peoples’ work well beyond my own, people that have come and gone and people that are still very much involved like John Lacey, Roland Benedict, O’Brien Byrd, Ryan Billiet, and all of those pieces are important,” said Blackburn. “The last thing that we want as we change the branding and the organizational structure in Whitefish particularly is to forget where we’ve come from, and luckily I’ve been a part of that for thirteen plus years.”