Glacier’s Quick Road to the Top

By Beacon Staff

The first year they were called “fledgling.” Last year they were referred to as “maturing.” Now, people say the Glacier High School Wolfpack are “contending” – as in contending for the Class AA state football championship.

The rapid of evolution of the Wolfpack football program has come as no surprise to the players or coaches. Even in 2007, coming off a 0-10 season, nobody panicked. A tough first year was expected. Then last fall, Glacier clawed its way to a 2-8 record, far from championship caliber but an improvement nonetheless.

Observers of last year’s team may or may not have seen the foundation being laid for a 2009 championship run. But the players and coaches did. There was never a doubt.

“We couldn’t have gotten this far without belief,” said senior linebacker Connor Fuller. “We always believed.”

He added: “I’m amazed at how far we’ve come.”

Make no mistake about it, this Wolfpack team is good, across the board on both offense and defense. At 7-3, they head into this weekend’s Class AA playoffs as the fifth seed. They will play at fourth-seeded Billings Skyview (7-3) on Friday at 7 p.m. Glacier hasn’t played Skyview this season.

In the competitive 14-team Class AA, which is the league of Montana’s biggest high schools, to finish No. 4 through the regular season is no small feat for a young program. The only teams ahead of Glacier are perennial juggernauts Helena Capital and C.M. Russell, as well as Helena High. Capital has won the past three state championships and C.M.R. has won 12 since 1975.

Coming into this season, many knew Glacier would have a strong passing attack. Last year, as a junior, quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann was second in the state in passing yards and touchdowns, with Flathead’s Brock Osweiler leading both of those categories. Osweiler is now playing at Arizona State University.

Head coach Grady Bennett, a former Flathead High School and University of Montana star quarterback, has directed some of the best passing offenses in the state in the past two decades, between his time coaching at Flathead and now at Glacier. But, perhaps to the surprise of opponents, Glacier came out of the gates running the ball this season.

The result has been one of the best rushing offenses in the state with a passing game that can explode at any moment in any game. Smithwick-Hann, though his numbers are down, is still considered one of the premiere quarterbacks in the state. Smithwick-Hann threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns in a loss against Capital earlier in the season.

“We’re not one-dimensional,” Smithwick-Hann said.

This balance, refined by a newly instituted fly sweep offense, has made the Wolfpack one of the hardest teams in Class AA to defend. Glacier averaged 31.4 points per game through the regular season, the fourth-best mark in the league. Their rush offense (183.2 yards per game) is one of the best marks in the league and their total offense (364.3 yards per game) is the fourth-highest in Class AA.

“This is probably the most balanced team I’ve had in 20 years of coaching,” Bennett said.

Before the season started, Bennett showed a film of the fly sweep offense to the boys. That was the first step in ushering in an entirely new offensive scheme to the program. Capital, undefeated again this season, has used the offense to torment defenses for years.

In the fly sweep offense, Smithwick-Hann lines up next to a running back, while a slot back goes in motion to give the Wolfpack three running options or the potential to pass. Frequent fakes and misdirections keep the defense guessing and open up the field for the Smithwick-Hann or the back.

One reason the offense has been so effective is the rushing ability of Smithwick-Hann, who at 6-4 and 215 pounds is a load to bring down but entered this season relatively untested in the running game. Smithwick-Hann leads the team in rushing with 726 yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior running back Taylor Hart has 497 yards and a league-best 17 touchdowns. Fellow senior Wiley Fusaro has 523 yards.

Glacier’s Achilles heel this year has been its pass defense, which gives up a league-worst 217.8 yards per game through the air. The Wolfpack’s rush defense, however, is one of the best in the league.

Though the players say they expected to make the playoffs this year, now that the moment has arrived their giddiness is evident. Bennett said they’ve worked hard to earn this opportunity.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” Bennett said. “I’m so proud of these kids and what they’ve accomplished.”