Click the image above or use the arrows to see photographs from Bigfork’s win over Cut Bank.
With just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter of Bigfork’s semifinal football game against Cut Bank on Nov. 13, senior running back Travis Knoll remained on the ground after a play and the crowd fell silent.
It was the only time the crowd had been quiet the whole game. Someone on the sideline hoped aloud that the Vikings star only had the wind knocked from him. Then Knoll popped up. With his wind restored, he could now breathe, and so could Bigfork’s faithful fans.
The moment was a microcosm for Bigfork’s remarkable run to the Class B state title game. When these Vikings are down, they always get back up. And the crowd is there to cheer them on.
“It’s a tribute to the kids – they’re a never-give-up group,” head coach Todd Emslie said.
Bigfork defeated Cut Bank 28-14 to advance to the title game. The Vikings host Fairfield for the championship on Saturday Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. It is the fourth straight year Fairfield has played in the title game and the fifth time in the last six years. The Eagles have lost all of those games. Their last title was in 1982, when they beat Whitehall 28-2.
While Fairfield has made a habit of playing for the title, Bigfork is new to the party. The only time in school history the Vikings have advanced to the state title was in 1995 when they lost 12-0 to Frenchtown. Emslie was the team’s offensive coordinator that year.
In the late 1990s, Bigfork moved to Class A, where the football team enjoyed several solid years under Emslie, who had moved up to the head coaching position. Emslie took a sabbatical for five years before returning last year.
Prior to Emslie’s return, the football program endured a multi-year losing streak. Turnout dipped to 17 players one year. Game attendance dropped, along with morale.
Last year, Emslie inherited a set of circumstances that, while seeming dire to the outside eye, offered room for hope. His roster was talented and Bigfork’s reclassification to Class B gave both the town and players an exciting change of scenery.
Then on Sept. 18 of last season, Bigfork beat Plains 35-29 in overtime to finally snap their losing streak. Since then, it’s been a rapid rise to the top, led by a focused group of seniors and juniors.
Nobody has played a bigger role in the turnaround than Knoll, a 6-0, 175-pound running back and defensive back. In eight regular season games, Knoll rushed for 1,282 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging nine yards per carry. He scored 25 touchdowns total.
In three playoff games, all at home, Knoll has rushed for 224, 275 and 150 yards, tacking on seven more touchdowns to give him 32 in 11 games.
“He’s definitely the heart and soul of our football team and the kids look to him as an inspirational leader,” Emslie said.
He added: “He’s a football player. He’s built to carry the ball. Obviously he’s fast. Anyone who’s had the opportunity to watch him in a football game is in awe at least one or two plays each game. When he turns on the jets, it’s like whoa.”
The Vikings have come together as a team on defense and offense, growing in every area of the game. Their improvement was evident in the first round when they defeated Missoula Loyola Sacred Heart 41-31. Loyola had beaten the Vikings 61-34 earlier in the season.
Emslie is hoping his team can now avenge its other loss of the season, a 26-7 defeat to Fairfield on Oct. 8 on the road. Both Bigfork and Fairfield are 9-2. Fairfield beat Manhattan 44-12 in the semifinals.
“All teams kind of evolve over the course of the season,” Emslie said. “We’re probably a different team than we were before.”
A Bigfork win would be a breakthrough for the region. Since the mid-1990s, Class B football has been dominated by Eastern Montana teams such as Baker, Malta and Huntley Project.
Emslie acknowledged Fairfield’s experience playing in big games. But the Vikings have proven during their playoff run that they’re not intimidated by anybody.
“We’ve got an awful lot of confidence right now and we’re looking forward to the chance to face them again,” Emslie said. “They’re a good team but, you know, so are we.”
Senior quarterback Christian Ker and junior fullback Cody Dopps have played major roles in Bigfork’s evolution, and their talents were on full display against Cut Bank.
Dopps ran over a defender at the goal line just before halftime to cap off a 15-yard touchdown run that put Bigfork up 14-7. And Ker came up with one big play after another, through the air and on the ground.
“Christian Ker had the game of his life,” Emslie said.
Emslie said opposing teams have one other factor to consider: the raucous crowd. The Bigfork community has rallied around the Vikings, enduring chilly weather and filling the stands every game.
“The fans here are just incredible,” Emslie said. “They talk about the 12th man in Seattle but we definitely have it here in Bigfork. My players feed off of that energy.”
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