BILLINGS - The first key to victory is straight forward: if you can't score, you likely can't win. And not many soccer teams are scoring this season against Billings Central's girls.
The Rams' suffocating defense has only given up one goal this season (to Livingston), and that's without their starting goalkeeper. Olivia Tourtlotte hit the deck with an injury on the first day of practice and has been sidelined since. Just weeks before, the Rams lost one of their leading heartbeats and scorers - Solei Elletson - to a season ending knee injury.
Yet, here the Rams are with a 6-0 start while outscoring teams 44-1.
"Yeah, we've bounced back from adversity," Central head boys and girls coach Nolan Traftson told MTN Sports this week. "That's what good teams have to do; that's what great teams have to do."
"Solei was obviously a big loss and from the beginning of the summer, we had to get through that, even just with training," said Rams' defender/goalkeeper Hailey Euell. "Losing our goalie at the beginning of the season was a huge loss, but we've really overcome that."
Teams often say title runs are decided in the off-season weight room, but the Rams take it a step further in-season. At least once a week they meet inside a local gym for weight training and a variety of conditioning like box jumps, jumping rope, and the always-entertaining wall sits.
"Actually, we enjoy it a lot," Euell said. "We've been doing it since the beginning of summer. Obviously, we've gotten a lot stronger, and it's helped us out a lot."
"It's given us more confidence in our strength," midfielder Evelyn Nelson said. "Just an extra upper step that... I feel other teams aren't working this hard."
Central's girls own nine state soccer titles, more than any Montana high school team. The identity of this squad is built to make it 10.
"All around, we're a very explosive team, aggressive," Nelson said.
"We're strong defensively, but we can attack at the snap of a finger," said Trafton.
Central's boys are an under-the-radar group this season, winning half their matches with only three seniors on the roster.
"We come out here and fight for each other, play for each other and hold each other accountable," said senior goalkeeper Myles Ragar.
Despite the inexperience, Trafton says the boys are "way ahead of where we thought we'd be."
"We graduated six players, lost two others to moves. I wouldn't call it a rebuilding year, though, because I think we're still very competitive," he said.
The Rams (3-2-1) are unquestionably competitive compared to when Ragar and defender Isaac Hanser were freshmen. There weren't many wins that season, but Hanser still recalls it fondly.
"I just remember it was fun. That's what I'm trying to bring to this team again," Hanser explained. "We only won one game our freshman year, but it was still one of the most fun years. We already have a head start on the win count."
The third senior is Kyle Schreiber, who was talked into it at the last minute.
"He just wanted a third sport," Hanser said of Schreiber. "He played tennis and swims and I kind of talked him into it."
Otherwise, Hanser and Ragar would be on an island as Central's only elders. But there was no way they'd miss it.
"No doubt. We were going to come out no matter what," Ragar said. "We've been ready for this."
"I think we're going to fight for the Eastern Conference, then be a threat going into the post-season, too," said Trafton
"We made it to the state semis last year, but we're tired of getting knocked out," Hanser said. "I wouldn't mind going for a state championship this year."