The state football tournament is coming to Columbia Falls for the first time in three decades and the Wildcats aren’t surprised.
They knew how good they were long before the rest of the state did.
Using a multi-faceted running attack based on timing and fakes that often confuses spectators, not to mention defenders, the Wildcats earned the right to host a first-round Class A state tournament game for the first time since 1976 by beating rival Whitefish 20-7 in the regular season’s final game. Whitefish finished third in Northwest A, one spot behind Columbia Falls, and qualifies for a road game at state. Libby won the conference.
Senior Scott Palmer, who scored a 27-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Whitefish to ice the game, said he and his teammates knew coming into the season they were this good, but he was still as giddy as a Super Bowl champ after the regular season finale.
“This is great – I’m so excited,” Palmer said after the game. “It’s the biggest game I’ve ever played in. Everybody’s pumped up.”
The 6-2 (4-1) Wildcats wore down opponents all season with their ground game, utilizing various running backs, two shifty quarterbacks and speedy receivers, with lots of motion before the snap and even more after it. Junior Josh Wilson, who led the conference in rushing the past two years, ended up second this year behind Libby’s Jeremy Chumley with 827 yards. But Wilson got help from an array of teammates, including Palmer, who returned kicks for the Wildcats as well as lining up as a receiver and running back.
Wilson said players spent long hours in the weight room in the off-season to make sure they played to their potential this year. Their hard work paid off and their reward is a home game against Hamilton on Oct. 27.
“Every time 11 players in high school football come together,” Wilson said, “and play like a team and believe as a team, anything can happen.”
Whitefish 3-6 (3-2) also relied on the running game to get back to the state tournament. The Bulldogs averaged 165 rushing yards per game, second behind Columbia Falls’ 248 yards per game. The catalyst behind the ground game has been senior Matt Starr, who ran for 542 yards this year. Like the Wildcats, the Bulldogs use all of their running resources, from quarterbacks to receivers to running backs. Whitefish will travel to Frenchtown for a rematch of last year’s first-round game, in which the Bulldogs lost 42-14.
But Libby is clearly the team from Northwest A to beat, if not the team in the state to beat. Libby is 8-1 (5-0) going into state. The Loggers’ one loss was by forfeit because of an eligibility stipulation involving a player. The Loggers forfeited their season opener, a 53-20 victory over Kellogg, Idaho. Libby beat Columbia Falls 41-21 and Whitefish 48-7 in the regular season.
The other No. 1 seeds are all tough as well, especially Billings Central, which is undefeated and has outscored opponents 352-35. And there’s always Dillon, which has won the last two state championships and three out of the last four. The Beavers, however, lost to Billings Central 20-6 earlier this season.
The fourth No. 1 seed is Butte Central, a team that beat Whitefish 39-7 and Columbia Falls 40-14. If Columbia Falls beats Hamilton, the Wildcats will play Butte Central in the second round.
Columbia Falls’ win over Whitefish was an old-fashioned, grinding football game. With both teams committed to the run coming into the game, an icy and consistent wind made sure passing was even less of a priority. Players fumbled the ball throughout the game and dropped several passes, their hands obviously affected by the cold.
Down 7-6 with less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Columbia Falls faced a third-and-long. Wilson took a screen pass from Nolan behind the line-of-scrimmage and dodged two Bulldogs defenders before scampering 16 yards to the 6-yard line. On the next play, receiver Chase Fairbank cut into the end zone to put Columbia Falls up for good. Later in the quarter, Palmer put the game away with his touchdown run.
Columbia Falls will host Hamilton at a time to be announced on Oct. 27, while Whitefish plays Frenchtown on the same day at a time to be announced.
Related: Columbia Falls High School Sports Essentials
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.