In high school athletics, where there are no drafts and no recruiting, it’s not rare to witness seismic shifts in the balance of power following the graduation of only one or two senior classes. Dynasties quickly turn to rebuilding efforts and experienced contenders leave in their wake wide-eyed apprentices lunging at the opportunity for a shot at glory.
In the case of Flathead High School, 19 starters departed from last year’s 6-4 team, including Division I-bound Brock Osweiler and Tyler Thomas, two of the top players in school history. The Braves enter this year not as a state championship contender, as they have been for years, but as a young and eager squad led by 14 seniors, ready to find their way.
And across town at Glacier High School, in their third year of existence, the Wolfpack are looking to finally emerge from their cross-town rival’s shadow on the gridiron and put themselves on the Class AA map as a legitimate force. With a senior class of 30, including perhaps the best quarterback in the state in Shay Smithwick-Hann, Glacier won’t be content with repeating its 2-8 record from last year.
“We have a really good senior class,” Bennett said.
Glacier is deep and talented, with a more polished offense and a much-improved defense, led by a beefed-up line. But before the Wolfpack can begin thinking about the state tournament or even a winning record, they have to a monkey to get off their backs: winning their first home game. Last year’s two victories were both on the road.
The Wolfpack’s offensive success will start, but certainly not end, with Smithwick-Hann. The senior, at 6 feet 4 inches and 215 pounds, is a talented pocket passer with a pretty deep ball. Last year, he aired it out for more than 233 yards per game and 22 touchdowns, both second in the state behind Osweiler. He threw only seven interceptions.
This year, Bennett said Smithwick-Hann will be called upon to run more, using his big body to move piles for first downs. He will also have the freedom to survey the field and make more on-field decisions, Bennett said. Smithwick-Hann will benefit from an offensive line that is nearly unchanged from last year.
“We’ll definitely ride Shay and his leadership and his arm,” Bennett said.
In the backfield, seniors Wiley Fusaro and Taylor Hart give Glacier a versatile one-two punch. Fusaro, who Bennett describes as “hard to find,” is a 5-7 scat back who relies on shiftiness. Hart, at 6-2 and 205 pounds, is a bruising power back ideal for short yardage situations. Senior George Werk and junior Bryan Chery highlight a deep receiving core.
Bennett has shifted his defense around a bit, shuffling some of his most talented players into new positions. Senior Connor Fuller is moving to linebacker from safety, while Garrett Conners is moving to defensive tackle after a stellar year at linebacker.
Glacier’s first game is on Aug. 28 at home against Billings Senior at 7 p.m.
Over at Flathead High, youth reigns. Of the Braves’ 14 seniors, head coach Russell McCarvel said only a handful have game experience. Junior Connor Thomas, the younger brother of the departed Tyler Thomas, and senior Jeremy Grosswiler will help hold down the offensive line, while senior Trevor Beaman returns at middle linebacker to anchor the defense.
During the first week of practice, McCarvel, who is in his fourth year at Flathead, focused largely on the basics: teaching offensive and defensive schemes, working on tackling and blocking, and giving as many kids as possible vital reps. Last year, Flathead finished 6-4 and lost in the first round of the state tournament to Billings West 56-13.
“We lost 19 starters; we don’t really have experience anywhere,” McCarvel said. “You’ve got to start from the ground up and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
One obvious void to fill is the quarterback position, vacated by Osweiler, who is battling for the top job at Arizona State University. The position is up for grabs between junior Mike VanArendonk and sophomore George Sherwood. VanArendonk is fast and athletic while the 6-4 Sherwood, also a basketball standout, has size to survey the field.
McCarvel said they both are getting reps to learn the offense and though both had the chance to watch Osweiler in practice and in games, they are still starting from square one in terms of understanding the varsity game.
“What they saw and what they’ve got to do on Friday night are totally different,” McCarvel said.
Running back Travis Ozegovich, a junior, will lead the supporting cast around the quarterback, while a number of players are fighting for receiver spots. Osweiler’s favorite target last year, Travis Andrus, graduated and is playing receiver for the University of Montana Grizzlies.
Flathead’s first game is on Aug. 28 in Butte at 7 p.m.
“We’re inexperienced but the kids are working hard,” McCarvel said.
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