BOZEMAN — Grady Bennett clutched the wooden trophy as he silently shuffled off the frozen football field last Friday night, fading into darkness away from the stadium lights that illuminated the crowd of Bozeman players and fans swarming together in celebration.
The moment was lonely for only a second. A warm reception greeted Bennett and the Glacier Wolfpack as they limped into the locker room. Fans and parents, more than 500 of them who traveled more than 300 miles, embraced the team. Former players, like Devin Jeffries and Colter Hanson, who helped pour the foundation of a fledgling program over the past seven years, paid respect to the latest Pack.
By the time everyone huddled together in the locker room, Bennett no longer had the trophy hidden under his shoulder. He held the second-place plaque high in the air.
A proud tradition continues to rise.
The historic season that began four months earlier in Kalispell ended just shy of championship glory last week, doomed by misfires, mistakes and an opponent determined to write its own legend.
The undisputed No. 1 Bozeman Hawks fended off the No. 2 Glacier Wolfpack 24-14, capping an undefeated 13-0 season with the Class AA football state championship.
A year after narrowly losing to Butte in the title game, Bozeman earned its second trophy in four years. Glacier, playing in its first championship showdown, brought home its first hardware, albeit silver.
Yet the significance transcends the final score of the season. This Wolfpack team, picked by coaches in the preseason to finish seventh in the standings, went 11-2 with a reloaded lineup. The two losses came against the vaunted Hawks and were the closest matchups all season for a Bozeman team that steamrolled every other opponent, averaging more than 50 points per game on offense and limiting foes to less than two touchdowns.
“They were the lead horse in the race all year and they had the No. 1 spot and they kept it. They’re a great team,” Bennett said. “Obviously you want to win the championship, but if we’re going to be second to those guys, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
No doubt, Glacier reached an unprecedented milestone this season. The team’s record is the best in program history and the most wins ever by a Kalispell squad. Historically, three local teams have finished the season without a loss: the 1959 Flathead Braves (9-0-1); the 1970 Braves (9-0-1); and the 1951 Braves (8-0-2). Although two defeats blemish the final standing, this year’s Glacier squad capitalized on the added games in the schedule and notched more victories than any other.
“There’s been 100 years of football being played in Kalispell, and nobody has ever won 11 games; nobody has ever done the things these kids have done,” Bennett said.
“Nobody can take it away from them.”
Indeed, there have been growing pains along the way. Every evolutionary step comes at a cost. After losing back-to-back games in the semifinal round of the playoffs, the Wolfpack broke through to the title game.
But injuries piled up, and the wear and tear of playing another week into November showed on Friday night. Freezing cold temperatures didn’t help either.
Bozeman warmed up in the first quarter and then scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second while Glacier struggled to get going.
“The first quarter, defensively we played so good but unfortunately we just couldn’t get anything going consistently on offense. They score those first three touchdowns and I really thought, ‘wow, we might get blown out,’” Bennett said.
Then a spark emerged with a flash, courtesy of junior standout Logan Jones. With barely one minute left in the first half, Jones caught a pass from quarterback Brady McChesney and darted 72 yards for the touchdown.
But after that, the big, explosive plays that defined many of the Wolfpack’s wins went missing. Bozeman adjusted and grounded Glacier’s talented passing attack, forcing the Wolfpack to run the ball, which proved to be a challenge considering the team’s top running back, senior Noah James, was sidelined with a leg injury since the quarterfinals.
“Bozeman is good enough and smart enough to take that away,” Bennett said.
“I knew eventually the loss of Noah James was going to be big.”
A key penalty tilted in Bozeman’s favor, too, at a key moment in the game. With the Hawks leading 21-7 in the fourth quarter, Glacier charged down field into the red zone with its most confident offensive push yet. Senior Evan Epperly capped the drive with an athletic grab in the end zone, cutting it to a one-score game. But the officials called illegal formation, negating the touchdown. A play later, the Hawks intercepted McChesney and went on to kick a 26-yard field, forcing a 10-point swing and effectively stomping out Glacier’s momentum.
Senior Todd Ogden managed to notch one more TD for the Pack, a one-yard run with barely four minutes remaining, but it proved too little, too late. McChesney threw his fourth interception, a rare performance for the junior, who had only 15 all season to go along with 33 TDs and 2,691 yards.
“Credit to Bozeman,” Bennett said. “I thought our kids fought hard. We didn’t play very well, especially like we have been playing, but a lot of that is credit to (Bozeman).”
The future remains bright in Kalispell. A bulk of this Wolfpack squad will be back next year, more experienced and more motivated. In many ways, Glacier resembles last year’s Bozeman team, which had a young core of talent with strong senior leaders that lost in the championship game and came back this season fiercely driven.
The day after the championship game, Bennett met with his fellow coaches. Then on Monday, he gathered next year’s seniors.
“I told them it’s time to start laying that vision for next year,” he said.
“I asked them, ‘What are you going to do now? Are you going to continue the legacy of those seniors? Can you take the final step? How are you going to leave your legacy?’”
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