The Flathead Braves aren’t worried about scoring as long as their whole team is intact. But this is football and injuries happen. So head coach Russell McCarvel will be carefully monitoring the team’s depth chart, which features only 64 players this year, a decent turnout but half as many as before Kalispell’s high school split.
“If we don’t get any injuries we’ll be OK,” McCarvel said. “But injuries with our depth could really hurt.”
Like last year, the Braves are expected to put points on the board and rack up yards through the air, led by Brock Osweiler, their standout quarterback who has committed to Arizona State University. But the Braves lost a few key players from last year, not the least of which is Mike Gallagher, the record-breaking wide receiver who led the state in nearly every receiving category last year. They still, however, have Osweiler, star lineman Tyler Thomas, receiver Travis Andrus, running back Bryce Stacy and 18 other seniors to provide leadership.
McCarvel will look to his team’s big line on both offense and defense, as well as the passing game, to set the tone for the season.
“We’ve got the big guy Brock – we’ll definitely be airing it out,” McCarvel said.
The Braves finished 6-5 last year. As the seventh seed in the state tournament, they lost 27-20 in the quarterfinals to Billings Senior. For the season, the Braves ranked among the state leaders in several offensive categories, including passing. Osweiler broke schools records for passing yards (2,935), touchdowns (27) and total offense (3,251).
Osweiler expects to see the Braves at the top of the league’s standings again.
“We’re very talented and we’ll make a run at state,” Osweiler said.
Across town at Glacier High, Shay Smithwick-Hann returns for his junior year to lead the Wolfpack at quarterback. Last year, Smithwick-Hann showed glimpses of being a top-notch AA quarterback, despite working with a young receiving crew and offensive line that had little experience as a team. In the inaugural rivalry game against Flathead, he threw for a career-high 257 yards and two touchdowns.
Head coach Grady Bennett expects the Wolfpack’s running game to be markedly improved, which in turn will open up the passing game for Smithwick-Hann. With three solid running backs, led by junior Wiley Fusaro, Bennett said his squad should be able to gain more yards on the ground this year. Aside from being the team’s leading rusher, Fusaro was also one of the league leaders in receptions.
“Even though he’s small, he’s tough,” Bennett said of Fusaro.
Glacier, which finished 0-10 last year, has 75 players who will divide their time between the sophomore squad, junior varsity and varsity. Some, like last year, will play two games in a single night or a game on Friday followed up by a Saturday game. Also, several of the seniors who tried out this year have never played before. Bennett said that building a new football program always creates a handful of difficult circumstances.
“That’s just where we’re at – still building the program in year two,” Bennett said.
But Bennett, who says “there’s so much change in a high school boy between his sophomore year and junior year and senior year,” is already seeing a more mature squad, both physically and mentally.
“All the little things we’re teaching, they’re doing them now – automatic,” Bennett said. “That’s cool.”
Another bright spot for the Wolfpack is the return of junior Garrett Conners, who broke his arm at the beginning of last season and missed the remainder of the year. He’s healthy now and Bennett expects him to be a force.
“I think he can be one of the best middle linebackers in the state eventually,” Bennett said.
Flathead beat Glacier 49-13 on Oct. 12 last year in Kalispell’s first cross-town rivalry game. The Braves know Glacier will be a bigger, better team this year, and Osweiler already has the game marked on his calendar.
“That night should be pretty special,” Osweiler said.
The Braves kick off their schedule at home against C.M. Russell on Aug. 29. The Wolfpack’s first game is at Butte on Aug. 29.
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