After two straight years of losing in the state semifinals, the Flathead Braves, armed with a new coaching staff and the best quarterback in the state, began this season with their eyes set on the state championship. Then they lost their first two games.
“With the new coaches, everything was good, everybody liked them,” said Michael Gallagher, a star senior receiver. “But when we lost those two games, kids started questioning whether we were going to be good this year.”
The Braves recovered, though, rattling off four straight victories, only to lose 28-21 to Great Falls High in overtime on Oct. 6. Flathead High brings a 4-3 record into their match-up against cross-town Glacier High on Oct. 12. The Braves are ranked seventh in Class AA; the top eight make it to the state tournament.
Brock Osweiler, Flathead’s junior quarterback prodigy, thinks this year’s Braves team is not only ready to make it to the big game, but fully equipped to win it.
“The past couple years we’ve been one of the best – or the best – in the state,” Osweiler said. “This team has the potential to be better.”
Osweiler, first team all-state last year, is once again proving he is the top quarterback in Montana. He is on pace to surpass his near record-breaking numbers from last year. He has thrown 18 touchdowns this season with five interceptions. The school record for touchdowns is 23. Also, he leads the state in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, pass efficiency and total offense.
Gallagher has often been the happy recipient of Osweiler’s darts. Gallagher leads the state in catches, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. His explanation of such big numbers is part modesty and part observation.
“It helps having the best quarterback in the state getting you the ball,” he said. “That’s a big part of how I’ve been doing.”
Osweiler hopes the running game can reach top form in time for the playoffs. The Braves are tough to beat with their formidable passing attack, but with a balanced offense, they are as good as they come. When it’s all clicking, Osweiler and head coach Russell McCarvel give credit to the offensive line.
The running game had its biggest game on Sept. 28 against Missoula Sentinel. With the Spartans’ defense keying in on the passing game, backup running back Bryce Stacy ran for 121 yards on 22 carries. Stacy was filling in for injured starter Charlie Dotson, who has a broken collarbone.
“A running game is a quarterback’s best friend,” Osweiler said. “You don’t realize that until you don’t have one.”
The Braves dominate at times, but in other moments, they lapse into mediocrity. McCarvel said his squad needs to cut down on fourth quarter mental breakdowns. Little slipups accumulate, and any loss of focus in a close game – especially in the playoffs – could end Flathead’s season.
Against the Spartans, the Braves nearly blew a 21-0 lead. The winless Spartans – who came into the game having been outscored 237-48 on the season – came up a yard short of taking Flathead to overtime. The Braves escaped with a 21-14 win for their fourth straight victory.
“It was a win,” said David Lau, a senior middle linebacker and co-captain. “But it wasn’t a good performance.”
Cutting down on those little mistakes was the key to the Braves’ winning streak, Osweiler said. It will be the key to close games come postseason too.
“I’d have to say it’s the little things,” Osweiler said. “Turnovers, converting third downs – those are the things we’ve really improved. Those little breakdowns are what caused those losses.”
Osweiler knows how meaningful mistakes are in the big games. In last year’s semifinal he threw four interceptions in a 28-7 loss to Billings West. In order for Flathead to play a clean game, Osweiler said he must protect the ball – he is the field general and the one player besides the center who touches the ball every snap.
“I’ll take full responsibility,” he said. “It starts with me.”
McCarvel is confident about his team’s ability to finish the season strong. He said his players understand that nothing can be taken for granted in Class AA.
“Every game’s such a big game,” he said. “I don’t worry about a letdown at all.”
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