Whitefish vs. Laurel

Laurel's girls soccer coach Aloma Jess hugs her players after the Locomotives defeated the Whitefish Bulldogs for the 2020 Class A state championship last October.

BILLINGS — Several years ago, Laurel girls soccer coach Aloma Jess and longtime assistant Valerie Nauman spied something special in a group of young soccer players that would one day be under their charge.

That would be a good class to go out on, the coaches agreed.

True to their word, six years later, Jess and Nauman are stepping down after a successful run with the Locomotives’ program. Jess, who has been the only head coach since the program began in 1999 except for 2005 — when Nauman took over when Jess was deployed to Utah with the Montana Army National Guard — turned in her resignation letter Monday.

Jess said Nauman, who has been an assistant in the program for the past 17 seasons, is leaving, as well.

“Lo and behold, here it is,” Jess told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com on Wednesday. “I actually put in more years coaching than I thought I would. Then you reach the 10-year mark, the 15-year mark and you’re like, ‘Well, I just want to see this group up and through.’ It kind of snuck up on us in a way, but we had been talking about it.”

Jess was there when the program began and built the Locomotives into a consistent state power. She didn’t play soccer herself until after college, when a group of friends talked her into joining a rec league.

She fell in love with the game immediately and talked about it routinely at Laurel High School, where she teaches English and advanced physical education. Her principal at the time, Mike Michunovich, heard her talking about the game and assigned it to her when the school board approved soccer as a sanctioned sport.

“There I was, deer in the headlights, a little bit scared and a little bit excited,” Jess said with a laugh, “and the rest is history. I had to figure things out pretty quickly and call upon my soccer friends who taught me how to play.”

Jess constantly studied the game and went to clinics. By 2004 she had the Locomotives in their first state title match, where they lost to Columbia Falls. Laurel didn’t return until 10 years later, when the Locos broke through for their first state championship in 2014.

Laurel has played in the state title match each of the past seven seasons, adding championships in 2017, 2019 and 2020. The Locomotives’ four state championships are the third-most in Class A, behind the nine won by the Billings Central girls and eight by the Whitefish boys.

Jess doesn’t take all the credit. She routinely acknowledges that the efforts of Nauman, the Laurel club program, and the commitment of the players themselves has taken the program to where it is.

As she steps away, Jess said she has “tremendous pride and gratitude” for what the Laurel program has become.

“When you’re in it you’re worried about the next match, the next match,” said Jess, who will continue her teaching duties at Laurel. “When you’re in it you don’t kind of allow yourself to think about the big picture. And now that it’s over, stepping back and looking back, you’re like, ‘wow, that is pretty incredible.’

“You’re just so busy thinking about what has to be done next and the next year, the next season. So now it’s really quite rewarding just to step back and say, ‘wow, we were able to accomplish a great thing.’”

Email Mike Scherting at mike.scherting@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert

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