Before the season kicked off, coaches from across the state predicted this Glacier football team would finish seventh out of 14 teams in the league standings.
After all, the Wolfpack were depleted of all but six starters, including their standout quarterback and defensive MVP. The schedule was brutal and featured matchups against the league elite in the opening weeks, including road games against the defending state champions and runners-up.
It seemed destined to be a rebuilding year.
Instead it became an historic year.
With a 56-7 win over Flathead last Friday that secured the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, Glacier capped its best regular season in program history and the best record by a Kalispell team in more than 40 years.
The Wolfpack’s 9-1 record is the best since the 1970 Flathead Braves, a team that went 9-0-1 and won the state championship. The only other squads in Kalispell history with rivaling records are the 1959 Braves (9-0-1), the 1958 Braves (9-1) and the 1951 Braves (8-0-2).
“I really like how this group stepped up to this challenge and answered the doubters and naysayers,” head coach Grady Bennett said.
Now the hunt is underway for championship glory. Riding a seven-game win streak, the No. 2 seed Wolfpack host No. 7 Butte (6-4) in the opening round of the Class AA playoffs, Friday at 7 p.m. at Legends Stadium. Glacier will attempt to advance to the semifinals for the third consecutive year. The two teams collided earlier this fall and Glacier came away with a 58-41 victory in Butte on Sept. 27.
“At our team meeting, we said, ‘OK you’ve done it. You rose up and put yourself in a good position,’” Bennett said. “Now the key is we have to get better every game and play our best football at the end.”
It shouldn’t be completely surprising that Glacier is back in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row. The program is all grown up and built on a proud tradition that touts a 40-17 record since 2009.
The growth has continued across the board, as younger players are following their predecessors with success.
“I think it’s the most balanced football team I’ve ever had as a head coach,” Bennett said. “Teams can take away one guy, and we’ll go to another guy. It’s truly an amazing feeling.”
In his first season starting under center, junior Brady McChesney has kept alive Glacier’s tradition of talented quarterbacks. He has completed 160 of 264 passes (61 percent) for 2,757 yards and 33 touchdowns. His season total ranks second all-time at Glacier behind Taylor Hulslander, who passed for 2,804 yards in 12 games as a senior last year.
McChesney has three receivers with over 600 yards: Evan Epperly with 44 catches for 942 yards and 12 touchdowns; Logan Jones with 46 catches for 711 yards and seven touchdowns; and Sam McCamley with 33 catches for 604 yards and nine touchdowns.
Epperly ranks second in Glacier’s record books for single-season receiving yards behind 2012 grad Kyle Griffith (1,051).
As a defensive back, Epperly leads the team in interceptions with four.
Then there’s Noah James, who has emerged as one of the best running backs in Montana. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior has racked up 1,062 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. His yardage total ranks first all-time in Glacier history.
Glacier’s offense ranks fourth overall in the state with 33.4 points per game, behind Bozeman (50.1 ppg), Helena (40.6 ppg) and Butte (37.7 ppg).
The Wolfpack defense is ranked third, holding opponents to an average of 16.6 ppg. Bozeman ranks first (11.8 ppg) and Helena second (13.6 ppg).
Junior linebacker Josh Hill leads the team in total tackles with 106, followed by senior defensive back Orie Mann (101). Senior lineman AJ Robinson leads in sacks with nine.
The Wolfpack have outscored opponents 162-75 in the second half this fall.
The defense has limited the last three opponents to seven or fewer points total.
Glacier’s lone loss came against Bozeman, which enters the playoffs 10-0 ranked No. 1. The Hawks held off the Pack, 27-12 on Sept. 13. Bozeman bumped Glacier in last year’s semifinal round and lost to Butte in the title game, 38-36.
It’s one game at a time, but are the Pack afraid of running into the champs again?
Not even a little.
“These guys want that chance again,” Bennett said.
Correction: Butte defeated Bozeman in last year’s AA state title game.
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