MISSOULA — The Missoula sports dynasty that dwarfs all others doesn't wear maroon and silver.

There are no suits of armor with shoulder pads. Or high-priced sneakers and headbands. Or beer-guzzling, corn-hole-playing groupies chasing them around.

There's just simple red and gold uniforms and a proud legacy unlike any other in Montana high school boys sports.

For five straight years, the Missoula Hellgate soccer team has reached the State AA title game. Over the past 11, in an era when Bozeman has held a distinct enrollment advantage over everyone else, Knights coach Jay Anderson has guided his program to four state crowns and eight state championship game berths.

All of which meant nothing Saturday as Anderson led his 2019 Knights onto the pitch at sun-splashed Rattlesnake fields. No matter how many championships his team garners, he'll always be humble to a fault and married to the notion you're only as good as your last game.

So it was, then, that Anderson and his troops were feeling a little low after Kalispell Glacier forged a tie, 2-2, on an own goal late in Saturday's opener. Yet even that ho-hum result proved a testament to the respect the Knights have earned, with the Wolfpack celebrating like it was a playoff win.

"I like being with these kids," a solemn Anderson said of his subdued troops afterwards. "It's the next best thing besides playing.

"That moment that I was unable to play anymore, I really wanted to be part of something still. That's why I got into coaching and I still enjoy it. And I love this level. I love coaching at Hellgate."

Coaching the Knights seems to get better all the time for Anderson. On Saturday, with the Griz football team playing on TV, roughly 200 fans showed up to support the Hellgate boys. Included in that group was a student section.

Yeah, I'm not joking — a lively student section for a Montana high school soccer game.

"That's kind of new," said Anderson, who has to rebuild this year after losing two of the greatest to ever play for him, Matt Baldridge and Cole Hage. "That's the first time I've seen it that rowdy and loud over the last 15 years or so. That was kind of cool. I think the boys really like that."

Even if you're not a fan of Hellgate sports, you can't help but admire what the Knights have achieved on the pitch. Or the way Anderson feels about it.

"It's obviously a little bit of luck — I've had great players come through the program," he offered. "I've also got a great coaching staff. These guys that have gone through the program, they know what it's like and they come back and help as assistants. They want to be part of it."

What the 2019 Knights learned Saturday is no one in Kalispell, or the rest of the Treasure State for that matter, cares a hoot about what they did last year. Or the year before.

Success is fleeting. We all learn that the hard way.

Something tells me Missoula's marquee high school sports program won't stay subdued for long. Anderson's teams have a history of steadily improving as the season wears on, which helps explain their uncanny tournament success.

"We have as good of a shot as anybody does," the coach offered. "It's early in the season and we won't know until we've played everyone once, but I'm super happy with everything I've seen so far.

"I think we can get right back into it. I really do. We've got some things to work on but I think they're ready to. They bust their butt day-in and day-out and I'm super proud to be their coach."

Even if your kids played soccer at a rival school like mine, it's easy to appreciate these fun-loving fútbol Knights. Sustaining success for such a long period of time is perhaps the hardest thing to do in high school sports.

Keep kickin' it, guys.  

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Bill Speltz is in his 13th year as Missoulian Sports Columnist. He also guides the sports dept., scheduling day-to-day coverage. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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