There can be no doubt about the historical significance of Friday night’s gridiron match-up between cross-town rivals Glacier and Flathead.
The grandeur goes beyond the rivalry itself, which is in its second year and appears poised to produce a much more competitive game than last season. The evening also carries the weight of goodbyes – Flathead’s seniors are playing their final regular season game at Legends Stadium. Though the Braves could host another home game in the playoffs, it would require an improbable chain of events.
After this weekend, Glacier has a home game and road game left; Flathead has two regular season games remaining, both on the road.
Among Flathead’s departing seniors are Tyler Thomas and Brock Osweiler, who will both play Division I football next year at Oregon State and Arizona State, respectively. Osweiler, the Braves’ record-breaking quarterback, is well aware of his final home game’s importance.
“It’s the culmination of these last four years,” Osweiler said at a recent practice. “After those four quarters, it’s done. We want to go out on a winning note.”
Osweiler is also acutely aware of the rivalry factor.
“Whoever wins (this) game has bragging rights for the entire year,” he said.
Glacier head coach Grady Bennett believes the Flathead-Glacier rivalry, which was born when Kalispell went to a two-high school format last year, will one day be viewed as a storied tradition in Montana football. It begins, for all practical purposes, this game. Bennett said last year’s inaugural contest, though exciting and important, was mostly a warm-up preview to what the rivalry will become. Glacier had no seniors and really never had a chance against the older, stronger Braves.
This year is different for the Wolfpack, who have 22 returning starters. Though their record is only 2-5, they have hung tough with some of the state’s best teams, including taking C.M. Russell into halftime tied 7-7. Their two victories came against Butte and Missoula Hellgate.
“Flathead is still an upper-echelon team and we’re trying to find our way,” Bennett said. “But this year I hope people come in thinking this is going to be a game. It’s going to be a blast for the fans to watch.”
The game features two of Class AA’s top quarterbacks: Osweiler and Glacier’s 6-foot-4 junior Shay Smithwick-Hann. Osweiler is averaging 254 yards passing per game to top the state, while Smithwick-Hann is second at 221 yards. Osweiler has thrown for 19 touchdowns, first in the state, while Smithwick-Hann has 13.
Osweiler, at 6 feet 8 and 235 pounds, has also done considerable damage on the ground, rushing for 76 yards per game and eight touchdowns. He averages 331 yards per game of total offense, which is more than most entire teams and far more than any individual player in Class AA. Rushing and passing combined, he has accounted for 19 touchdowns in the last four games, all wins for the Braves.
Bennett said the game plan for Osweiler is simple: Try to slow him down, but realize you’ll never stop him.
“Stopping Brock, I don’t know how you do it. You don’t,” Bennett said. “At least try to take away (some) of his threats, to try to contain him.”
Flathead coach Russell McCarvel knows the game against Glacier is not only important for inter-city bragging rights, but also because the Braves, 4-3, are still in the thick of the playoff hunt. With three games left, counting the Glacier contest, the Braves can finish as high as the fifth seed in the state tournament or could miss the playoffs altogether. The Braves are currently in fifth.
But first things first: McCarvel knows Glacier will show up to play.
“We’re expecting their best game,” McCarvel said. “I expect our group will rise to the challenge.”
It’s easy for people to get too caught up in rivalries, Bennett said, which is dangerous, particularly at the high school level. Bennett continually reminds his players to treat the game with the reverence it deserves, while remembering that it is a football game. Respect is key. Bennett, who has been around the high school, college and professional football levels, said “athletics are education, they’re a training ground for life,” though it “sometimes it brings out the worst of people.”
But Bennett hasn’t seen any cause for concern leading up to this week’s game, saying “there are a lot of people here that just want to enjoy the game.” He has chatted with McCarvel about monitoring the rivalry atmosphere.
“Russell and I are always going to be on the positive side of the cross-town philosophy,” Bennett said.
Bennett points to the rivalry between Helena Capital and Helena High, which has been featured on ESPN and is arguably the fiercest in the state. Each year, both Helena teams end up near the top of the standings, with Capital having won the last two championships and five since 1999. Bennett hopes Kalispell’s two schools will someday be in that company.
McCarvel understands the long-term significance of the rivalry as well.
“It’s something that’s going to be there forever,” he said.
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