Title swing

Manhattan Christian's Caidin Hill tees off on the par 3 Hole 2 at the Double Arrow Golf Course in Seeley Lake in 2019. Hill fired a two-day score of 74-81-155 to win his second straight Class C state title, and both the Manhattan Christian boys and girls claimed the team titles.

BUTTE – Every state champion wanted to defend their titles this spring, but Manhattan Christian’s golf program had a few more than one to defend.

Under head coaches Jeff Bellach and Tom Hubers, both sides of the Eagles’ golf program had swept the past two Class C State tournaments, winning at Seeley Lake’s Double Arrow Golf Course in 2018 and then at Fairmont Hot Springs’ course in 2019.

However, the chance was swept out from beneath Christian, as the threat of COVID-19 led to the MHSA’s cancellation of the spring sports season. While the Eagles are still the defending state champs, they’d much rather have attempted to complete a third-straight sweep.

“I’ve been on three of the championship teams,” Eagles senior Madelyn Liudahl said. “And this last year I could’ve made history being on winning team all four years. It did hit me pretty hard, knowing that I never did get the opportunity and that we would’ve have had a really great year.”

Liudahl wasn’t just looking for a third-straight sweep with the boys, Manhattan Christian’s girls program was looking for their fourth-straight title in Class C, with Liudahl being a consistent factor in the previous three teams.

Hubers said he understands Liudahl’s disappointment, because of the senior’s high expectations for herself and determination to succeed.

“Maddie as a freshman contributed right away,” Hubers said. “She’s a sweet girl who is a lot of fun to be around and always worked hard and expected a lot of herself. She gets frustrated when things don’t go according to plan, but that’s because she expects a lot of herself. I can’t say enough about her.”

Unfortunately for Liudahl and seniors around Montana, the spring didn’t go according to plan, and was taken out of their control due to the need for safety.

But after the immediate disappointment of the lost season, Liudahl is staying positive and looking forward. The multi-sport athlete is heading to Northwest College in Orange City, Iowa, to play volleyball and is excited for the possibility.

“In the beginning of my college search,” Liudahl said. “Something I wanted was to experience somewhere else for my college years, I love Montana and I could definitely see myself coming back, but for college I just wanted to branch out a bit. I never thought I’d end up in Iowa, but the school had everything I was looking for. It’s a private Christian college which is what I was looking for after Manhattan Christian.”

However, while Liudahl has a college career to look forward to, she’s in touch with how difficult this whole process has been for her and for all the high-school seniors who have lost their final season.

“This has to be tough for pretty much every senior in the country,” Liudahl said. “It’s OK to grieve your senior year. I’ve done a lot of that, being sorry for a lot of the stuff I lost. We have to also look at what’s positive, we have so much more time to do stuff that we don’t have time for.

“I would’ve been playing golf, club volleyball, senior projects and graduation. I’ve had the chance to slow down and realize what’s important for me, which is spending time with friends and family. I’ve had a lot of support from them.”

For the Eagles’ boys program, the disappointment is the same, but from a different perspective.

Christian almost had three straight sweeps, but the Eagles finished the 2017 state tournament in second. While still an extremely impressive three-season stretch, a third straight title in 2020 felt like a feat the Eagles were confident in accomplishing.

“They were primed and ready to go for the three-peat,” Bellach said. “Next year is setting up for a special run for them, but it’s very unfortunate that things went the way they did, I know all the kids have been out on the course all spring. They’ve handled it pretty well I think, but it’s understandable to be disappointed.”

The junior trio of Trevor VanDyken, Cullen Visser and Caidin Hill was looking to lead the way to that goal, and while they’ll have another shot in 2021, the team is also dismayed that it’s going to have to wait a year.

Hill, who has won back-to-back individual titles along with the team victories, says that the outlet of competition is what he misses most about not playing this past season.

“When I go out during the summer,” Hill said, “I’ll go out and mess around. I try, but I miss the competitive feel. At tournaments, you’re focused and you’re trying your best on every single shot… I think it’s that we all love playing. Trevor and Cullen work on the golf course and love being on the golf course too.”

 A well-rounded game is needed to win back-to-back state titles, but Hill’s play is highlighted by his crisp iron play, which Hubers says is a big reason why he won his second individual title at Double Arrow last season.

“Caidin is always focused on the moment,” Hubers said. “Last year, we drew up a plan at state. It’s a shorter course and Kaiden can hit his irons straight as an arrow, so we said that he didn’t need to hit driver. He followed our plan and won by 12 strokes. He’s very kind and respectful, and, like Maddie, expects a lot of himself.”

The junior now hits the course three or four times a week, continuing to keep his game sharp along with VanDyken and Visser. After all, they have set a precedent for themselves and for the future of the Eagles’ program.

Hill has an interesting perspective on that subject, as the junior was raised in Missoula and didn’t attend Manhattan Christian until eighth grade. When talking about why Christian is able to continuously succeed in a variety of sports, Hill explained that a lot of his friends and classmates were inspired by the Eagles athletes that came before them.

“You have a group of really good athletes at the right time,” Hill said. “And all the kids below that see those players and say, ‘I want to be like that.’ They start practicing and getting better and become the good ones. It’s this cycle and it’s a tradition of succeeding at sports and the kids understand that you have to work hard to be good at that.”

Setting the example and overcoming the unforeseen adversity of COVID-19 is what Hill and the rest of the Eagles will try to do.

From Bellach’s perspective, the way his athletes and those around the country have responded has already been impressive, and is the silver lining on a difficult situation.

“We as coaches we teach these kids about how to respond to adversity,” Bellach said. “We come up with motivation for them when situations don’t go their way. The class of 2020, all over the country, are coming up with ways to respond. It’s an opportunity for them that they can embrace and progress through and pick up the pieces and make them stronger.”

Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte. Follow and reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier.

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