SANDPOINT — You can’t win state on Thursday, but you can sure lose it, and a state playoff-seasoned Bulldog girls team will kick off the 4A tournament today fully aware of what’s at stake.
The Bulldogs (10-2-1) open against Canyon Ridge (11-7-1), which might be the easiest game they get — at least on paper — in a bracket loaded with undefeated land mines in the form of Bishop Kelly (17-0) and Century (18-0).
But the powerhouse Bulldog program doesn’t own seven state titles by accident. They can more than hold their own against the best in the state, regardless of records, and have proven it time and again. That said, it’s tough not to look ahead to another tantalizing matchup with 4A arch rival Bishop Kelly, as the two teams met in last year’s final in the latest installment of the burgeoning rivalry with the Knights prevailing 3-1.
The Bulldogs would love nothing more than to exact some revenge, should they and the Knights advance to the finals.
“We know Bishop Kelly is undefeated again this season, but we play a tough season to get to state,” said Bulldog head coach Conor Baranski, whose team plays up in class far more often than the Knights. “They’re the team to beat.”
Sandpoint has no weaknesses this season, with better depth than they’ve had in years, and will lean on a pair of seniors with lots of state experience in midfielder Hadley Marshall and forward Casey Shaha.
Shaha has nine goals this year, and with leading scorer Riley Walkington (11 goals) out with injury, will join Emi Lynch, who has five goals and three assists, to help pick up the slack in the absence of one of the state’s best players.
Orchestrating the offense from the midfield is Marshall, who has four goals and five assists on the season and along with teammate Rachel Meyer was part of the last state championship Bulldog team as a freshman. She wants the rest of her teammates to feel the same joy she felt four years ago.
“I’d like to win senior year,” admitted Marshall. “It’s an amazing feeling, I really want them to feel that.”
Behind every state banner is a tough defense, as it’s almost impossible to win a championship without one. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they’ve got a trio of underclassmen defenders anchoring the back line that are tough to beat.
Juniors Yeo Yarnell, Jezza Hutto and Mya Darling form a three-player defensive backfield with a unique combination of skills. Yarnell and Hutto, both fast and creative with the ball, often move up in the attack to bolster the offense. Baranski feels the pair are as good as any outside backs in the state, and they’ll get tested often by some fast and dangerous strikers.
Sophomore Shea Kilpatrick has three shutouts on the season, and stood out last year at state, where a big save or two can often dictate the outcome of a game.
The pieces are there, but any coach will tell you it also takes some good bounces and a little luck to win three straight times against the top teams in the state.
For that to happen, Meyer said the team will need to exemplify a word that Baranski stresses often.
“Bringing the swagger from Sandpoint,” said Meyer. “It gives us confidence and reminds us that we’ve won state and can do it again.”
Kickoff for today’s game is 10 a.m. at Brother’s Park in Caldwell.