A Rare Champion Emerges from the West

By Beacon Staff

There is a divide. The continental, they call it.

It’s a place where the rivers part ways, some headed to the Pacific and others finding their way to the Atlantic. It is where the mountains clench and then release, giving way to vast agricultural plains in the east. And out in those great grasslands, countless rectangular chunks of earth are groomed, striped and lined with bleachers. Out there, the majority of Montana’s football champions are born.

But, with less frequency, they are also born in the state’s western logging forests, rising from valley floors on the opposite side of the divide. In Northwest Montana this fall, a special team in Bigfork rose from obscurity and carved out a name for the Flathead Valley in the state’s football community. While fans surely hope more titles lay ahead, history tells us that these Vikings come once in a generation, or perhaps a lifetime.

The Vikings, in beating Fairfield 24-21 for the Class B championship on Nov. 20, became the first Flathead County team to win a state football title since Whitefish won the Class A championship in 1979. The last time a Kalispell team went all the way was 40 years ago in 1970 when Flathead claimed the Class AA crown. Charlo, Arlee and Ronan have won titles for Lake County.

Similarly, Missoula County rarely produces a champion, except for Frenchtown, which has five to its name. Of the four high schools located in Missoula city’s limits, only Big Sky has won it all since the Montana High School Association adopted a four-class system for football in 1973. Big Sky took the Class AA championship in 1994.

That means, since switching to the modern class system, schools other than Frenchtown from Lake, Missoula and Flathead counties have combined to win six titles in 38 years, including Bigfork’s triumph. In that period, a total of 181 championships have been played in all divisions including Class C eight-man and six-man, which, it should be noted, have limited representation from western schools.

These long championship droughts are particularly notable considering Missoula, Lake and Flathead counties account for nearly 25 percent of Montana’s population. Gallatin County’s limited success further illustrates mountain region inferiority. Those four counties together account for one out of every three people in the state, but their dense population bases clearly haven’t provided an advantage on the gridiron.

Bozeman, one of the most populated and fastest-growing towns in the state, had claimed only two titles ever before Bozeman High won the Class AA crown on Nov. 19. Bozeman also had a champion in 1917 while Bozeman Rosary was the Class C champ in 1973. Belgrade won three titles when it was a Class B school.

By comparison, schools from Great Falls have won 17 titles since 1973 – 13 for CM Russell and four for Great Falls High. Farther east in the prairie, the tiny town of Highwood has 11, Sidney nine, Miles City seven, Billings seven, Baker six, Wibaux five and Geraldine five. An exception to the plains’ superiority is Helena – located directly on the eastern side of the continental divide – thanks to Helena Capital’s 10 titles. West of the divide, Drummond has five.

Perhaps, as the agricultural plains continue to dwindle in population while mountain towns explode, the victories by Bozeman and Bigfork reflect a changing of the guard. Maybe shifts in Montana’s industry and culture are tipping the competitive scales on the football field. Or, maybe, it was just a good year to be from the timber.

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