The Columbia Falls football team doesn’t run conditioning drills. There’s no stretching either. Practices are structured with an intricate syllabus and orchestrated by a teenage girl on the sidelines holding a stopwatch and air horn — “She runs the practice,” the head coach says. Games are guided by a dynamic system that consists of more plays than there are names on the team’s roster. Wins and losses are determined by an equation.
Welcome to the new era of Columbia Falls football.
Jaxon Schweikert raised a few eyebrows when he took over the Wildcats last year. The new head coach from Washington incorporated several unconventional methods and overhauled almost every aspect of the program, including the traditional philosophy of running the ball first and foremost. He introduced schematics that resembled the innovative styles in the NFL and college; not exactly common in the high school ranks because of their complexities.
“When I came, they didn’t really think we could win a game last year,” Schweikert says. “Not only did we win more than one game, we made it to the playoffs.”
Now, after a full year under Schweikert’s tutelage, the Wildcats are having the best season in C-Town since the 1970s. Columbia Falls is 6-0, ranked among the top three teams in the state and within reach of winning the Northwestern A title, a feat that only two Wildcats teams have accomplished in nearly 40 years.
The Wildcats rolled past Frenchtown, 54-13, last Friday, taking sole control of the conference lead at 2-0. Columbia Falls finishes against Libby (1-6) on Oct. 18 and then the regular season reaches a climactic conclusion on Oct. 25, when the Wildcats host second-place Polson (4-2), the winner of four of the last five Northwestern A titles.
Already this fall the Wildcats dismantled Lewistown, 43-14, Browning, 58-0 and Whitefish, 21-0, while picking up last-minute victories over Anaconda, 20-14, and Hamilton, 30-29.
It’s been four decades since the football team has enjoyed this type of success. Between 1973 and 1977, the Wildcats dominated the western conference, winning 32 of 35 games during the regular season under longtime head coach Harold Hughes. Columbia Falls finished undefeated in league in 1975 and 1976. Yet each of those teams fell short in the playoffs and the 1970 team is the only group to advance to the Class A state championship. That year’s squad lost at home to Havre, 34-18.
The team struggled through the ensuing decades, suffering several gloomy seasons dampened by more losses than wins. There were brief playoff appearances in the 1990s, but not until 2007, when the Wildcats went 6-2 in league, did Columbia Falls host another playoff game.
Since then the resurgence has gained steam. The 2010 team won its first conference title since 1976 and the Wildcats have advanced to the playoffs five of the past six seasons. Last year’s team racked up nearly 500 yards of offense in the opening round of the playoffs, but Anaconda’s defense kept the Cats out of the end zone, winning 32-14.
This fall the playoff streak looks destined to continue with another invitation to compete for the state title. Columbia Falls is ranked near the top in Class A, among perennial powerhouses Dillon (6-0) and Billings Central (5-1), the two teams that have battled for the last two state titles.
“At the beginning of the year, we wanted to be in this position,” senior quarterback Jared Trinastich said before practice last week. “We just wanted to come out and win those first games and get some momentum going into the conference. Now we want to keep it going.”
Trinastich has played a key role in the Wildcats’ dominance this season. Standing 6-foot-4 with the athleticism of a multi-sport athlete, he fits the mold of his former mentor, Austin Barth, who quarterbacked the Wildcats to success before graduating in 2011.
Trinastich took over as quarterback last year, the same time Schweikert took over for Bill Coleman as head coach. They have worked closely together throughout the year, studying film and learning the innovative offense that Schweikert developed over his 20-plus years of competing in powerhouse leagues like the 4A, the largest in Washington.
Schweikert most recently coached at Mount Vernon High School, which has more than 2,000 students, before moving in the summer of 2012 to the Flathead Valley, where his wife is from.
His high-powered system, which he likens to the run-and-gun offense in basketball, depends heavily on a cerebral quarterback.
That’s where Trinastich shines.
“If the QB is smart, then the world is at their finger tips. It’s really wide open for them,” Schweikert says. “Jared is smart and he’s learned a lot. And it’s worked really good.”
Behind Trinastich’s lead, the Wildcats offense is averaging more than 30 points and 370 yards per game. The senior has passed for 1,552 yards and 21 TDs. The defense has been equally superior, limiting opponents to an average of only 12 points per game.
The secret to success, Schweikert says, is the team’s attention-to-details approach, which is almost scholarly.
Every game and practice is filmed, and the team spends hours dissecting footage.
When it comes to practice, instead of beginning with standing stretches, the team undergoes warm-ups that are rapid and specific to positions, like CrossFit workouts. Instead of the old-school mainstay — running lines and other conditioning — the players undergo countless reps on offense and defense that are dictated by a team manager who sounds an air horn at specific intervals, signaling a change in emphasis.
The playbook, centered on a wide-open offense, features more than 100 plays, which are detailed on players’ wristbands.
Junior Ty Morgan has especially excelled and become a standout leader. His athleticism has allowed Schweikert to fill him into several positions, like wide receiver and running back. As a result Morgan has scored 14 touchdowns receiving.
“It’s been pretty crazy. We started off our second game at Hamilton and ended up winning with no time on clock,” said Morgan, who scored the winning points in the final seconds of Columbia Falls’ win over the Broncs.
“I think that just kind of kick-started us the rest of the season and showed that we could be something special.”
From the beginning, Schweikert has preached a new team mantra – deserve to win. It’s more than a motivational saying; it involves an actual equation that adds up to an end result.
“We’re ruled by the 12 percent rule,” Schweikert says. “If 12 percent of our plays or offensive snaps are not dropped balls, turnovers or bad penalties, then we’ll win 97 percent of the time.”
He continues, “We have a lot of things that add up to deserving to win. If all of our pillars of success add up — our core values — then we feel good about ourselves. But if we didn’t do these things, then we can’t complain because we didn’t deserve to win.”
The core values are “strength” and “honor,” and “toughness, tempo and finishing.”
“If we do all of those things, it’s rewarding for them,” Schweikert says. “Winning is a neat by-product.”
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