The freezing temperatures inside Legends Stadium continued dropping after kickoff and a bitter wind sharpened the cold snap after halftime. The scoreboard confirmed the steely reality. Summer and its radiant expectations seemed forever ago.
History has shown how difficult it is to play for a state championship, and the Glacier Wolfpack suffered another harsh reminder. Bozeman redeemed its defeat in Kalispell earlier this season with an emphatic 34-21 victory over Glacier in the Class AA football semifinals on Nov. 9.
For the second time in three seasons Bozeman will play for a state championship, and for the second straight season Glacier falls one game shy of playing for its first.
“The hardest part,” Wolfpack head coach Grady Bennett said afterward, “is at some point it does come to an end and you have to say goodbye to a great group.”
It was the same frigid ending for two of Northwest Montana’s other playoff teams, Bigfork and Polson.
On Saturday, after crews cleared fresh snow off Malta’s field, the second-ranked Mustangs powered past Bigfork 23-13 in the Class B semifinals. It spoiled the Vikings’ hopes of playing for a title for the second time in three seasons despite graduating 14 seniors from last year’s quarterfinal team. Bigfork defended its district title and had its sights on a second state championship since winning the school’s first in 2010.
Instead undefeated Malta (11-0) will host undefeated No. 3 Missoula Loyola (11-0) on Nov. 17.
In Polson, the third-ranked Pirates fell victim to injuries and a frozen offense, losing 28-7 to second-ranked Dillon in the Class A semifinals. It was Polson’s first defeat in 10 games this season. The Pirates were hoping to play in the school’s first championship since 1969.
Butte Central defeated Polson that year, 20-6. But this year’s historic run stopped one game short. The team stumbled without leading rusher, Colton Lenz, who went out with illness. An injury also sidelined one of their top linemen, Riley Sampson.
Dillon (8-1) will travel east for a rematch with undefeated and top-ranked Billings Central (11-0) in the title game.
There is one team from this corner of the state still playing. Hot Springs is hosting Big Sandy in the Class C Six-Man state championship. Kickoff is 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The late-summer excitement that surrounded this season, particularly for Glacier, bloomed into reality throughout fall. The Wolfpack returned a strong senior class of veteran players on offense and defense, an omen of great portent for the rising program.
It took only two seasons, albeit painful ones, to build a playoff-caliber team and upset the order in Class AA. For the fourth straight season Glacier made the playoffs, but this year’s Pack grabbed the top-seed for the first time since the program began in 2007. The team muscled out the perennial elite of Helena, Great Falls C.M. Russell and Billings West.
But like Glacier found out last year, also losing in the semifinals, it’s an exclusive honor to survive until the final game of the season. In the past 20 years, the AA championship game has featured teams from Billings, Helena or Great Falls all but seven times. Bozeman (2010) and Missoula Big Sky (1994) are the only programs to win a championship since 1992 from outside of Montana’s three powerhouse cities.
This explains the noticeable exciting surrounding Glacier. Not only were the Wolfpack trying to become the first Glacier team in history to appear in the big game, they were trying to become the first Kalispell team since 2000. The Flathead Braves lost to Helena Capital that year, 35-6. Prior to that the last Braves team to play for a title was in 1980. CMR beat Flathead, 25-0.
Kalispell’s last state title came in 1970 when the Braves were crowned champions at the end of the regular season. Flathead had the best record in the state, 9-0-1, which earned them the de facto championship.
The other title teams were all the way back in the 1950s. Five Flathead teams played for the chipper then, winning three times (1950, 1958, 1959) and tying once (1951).
This seemed like it could be the year that Kalispell’s drought ended. Glacier had already defeated Bozeman, previously top ranked and undefeated, in a 7-3 defensive battle. And entering the semifinal the Pack had won eight games in a row.
But the cold collapse began early under the Friday lights. The Hawks capitalized on Glacier miscues early in the game and built a 13-0 lead midway through the first quarter. No team had scored more than 24 points against Glacier all season. Not until Friday night. The Wolfpack offense, which had struggled in recent weeks, misfired time and again. The home team was scoreless until the final minute of the third quarter.
“We didn’t really find our rhythm until late in the second half. That’s too late,” Bennett said, adding, “They got after us in all three phases. You have to give them credit. We wish them the best next week in the state championship game, which I wish was going to be here but unfortunately it’s not.”
There were plenty of glassy eyes leaving the field one final time, for coaches, players and parents.
“It’s disappointing but you can’t take away what this group of kids accomplished,” Bennett said of the Wolfpack seniors.
Bennett credited this senior class with helping establish Glacier as a competitive force in AA by succeeding at every level in high school and achieving back-to-back 9-3 varsity seasons.
“That’s all I could tell them — I’m sorry, I’m disappointed for you,” he said. “But I’m so proud of them and what they’ve accomplished and how quickly they’ve taken our program into the elite.”
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