COLUMBIA FALLS — This is supposed to be a basketball town.
For much of the last three decades, football has been played in the shadows, outshined by hoops dynasties or state championship soccer teams or all-state runners.
These gridiron Wildcats demand attention.
Under last week’s Friday night lights before an energized hometown crowd, Columbia Falls dominated its longtime nemesis and claimed the conference title in historic fashion. The 42-5 victory over Polson cinched the Cats’ first unbeaten regular season since 1976 and only the second conference championship in three decades.
“Everyone is really excited. This is the first time this has happened in forever,” senior quarterback Jared Trinastich, who threw four touchdowns in the game, said afterward.
“We’re usually a basketball town, but everyone is fired up and talking about us. It’s awesome.”
The exciting win vaulted the third-ranked Wildcats (8-0 overall) into the Class A playoffs with a first-round bye. Columbia Falls will host a playoff game either Nov. 8 or 9 against the winner of Havre (4-4) and Miles City (5-3).
“Ever since I was a little kid, we’ve always been talking about winning the conference and winning state,” Trinastich said. “Now we’re trying to make that second goal come true.”
The regular season has whittled down the field of playoff contenders for this week’s opening round. Whitefish (7-2), winners of four straight, hosts Butte Central (5-4) at 1 p.m., Saturday. Polson (5-3) travels to Hamilton (6-3). Laurel (6-3) hosts Lewistown/Fergus (2-6).
Columbia Falls is upsetting the order by joining the perennial contenders with first-round byes: last year’s state runner-up squad, Dillon (8-0); the defending state champs, Billings Central (7-1); and Belgrade (7-2).
“I feel good. At the beginning of the year we said we want to be a final four team,” second-year head coach Jaxon Schweikert said. “If we get to the final four, anything can happen. We’re one more away from getting to the final four. We’ve taken our first step, now we need to take the next step.”
Longtime fans are witnessing a revival that harkens back to the glory days of the 1970s, before any of these current players were even born and when Wildcat football boasted a mighty tradition.
Columbia Falls reigned over the western conference for much of that decade. The Wildcats’ enviable run included a streak of winning all but three games over five seasons — 1973 through 1977. That stretch featured two undefeated regular seasons, in 1975 and 1976. There was also an appearance in the Class A state championship game in the fall of 1970, when Columbia Falls hosted Havre in a title game blanketed by fog. Havre held on to win 34-18, and the opportunity to battle for another title has remained elusive ever since.
The proud program ran into adversity in 1980, when Columbia Falls increased its enrollment and bumped up to Class AA competition. The team held its own the first season, placing third among giants like Flathead and Missoula Sentinel. But after that the competition proved too stiff and slowly the Wildcats slumped into perpetual winless seasons. The school eventually dropped back to Class A, but the program struggled to regain its old swagger.
At long last, the Cats are back.
“It’s just neat to see that. It’s taken quite a while for it to come back,” said Bill Brunett, Class of 1972, who has remained among the Wildcat faithful win, lose or draw.
Brunett played for the touted teams in the 1970s and still regularly attends games at home and on the road. Even though this year’s team plays a unique style that contrasts to the old-school ground-and-pound Cats under head coach Harold Hughes, there’s a similar trait among these boys.
“What I saw in that game against Hamilton (earlier in the season), they didn’t give up. That was the turning point for this team,” Brunett said. “They believed they were going to win no matter what and that’s a big factor that’s really happening again with this program.”
Against Hamilton, Columbia Falls drove the length of the field in the final minute and scored a two-point conversion to win, 30-29.
The Wildcats have rarely fallen behind. The offense has scored 40 or more points five times while the defense has held opponents to 14 or fewer points every game except Hamilton.
“I feel like we’re a special team,” senior running back Zach Darling said. “We’ve really worked hard to get where we are. I think we’re going to have a good shot at it.”
Darling has rushed for 654 yards and nine TDs this season. Trinastich has completed 60 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,127 yards and 28 TDs. Junior Ty Morgan has 783 receiving yards and 14 TDs and senior Alex Presnell has 443 yards and four TDs.
“It would be nice to see this team be able to keep up the momentum,” Brunett said. “They need to take it one game at a time, and if they do, they’ll be playing here for a state championship.”
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