The new high school football season is fueling renewed excitement for each of Flathead County’s five teams.
Here’s a breakdown of the squads and their aspirations this fall:
Whitefish Boasts the Ingredients of a Title Contender
With 16 returning starters, the Bulldogs could compete for more than a conference championship
On paper, the Whitefish Bulldogs look impressive.
In person, they’re awe-inspiring.
Fans in the north valley are preparing for an exciting fall campaign as the Bulldogs hit the field with a whopping 16 returning starters, including six all-state athletes.
“We’re going to be very competitive this year. I’m very excited,” sixth-year head coach Chad Ross said.
The Bulldogs start the season on the road against Havre on Aug. 29.
Judging by early practices, the Bulldogs are already in mid-season form.
Whitefish boasts two of the best all-around athletes in Montana — senior quarterback Luke May and all-state wide receiver Jed Nagler. May passed for 2,408 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior, and also rushed for another 140 yards and five TDs. His favorite target was Nagler, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder who caught 51 passes for 1,017 yards and 13 TDs. Both spent the summer attending high-profile football camps and attracted the attention of top colleges. It’s easy to see why: Nagler is a state champion high jumper who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. May, 6-0, 180 pounds, is a state champion javelin thrower with athleticism to boot.
The excitement doesn’t stop with those two. Senior Brian FauntLeRoy caught 28 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, and senior fullback Chris Park tallied 570 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
The boys built one of the most potent offenses last season, compiling 4,167 yards, the fourth most of any team in the state, regardless of classification.
Whitefish captured the conference title and advanced to the semifinal round of the Class A playoffs for the first time since 2002 before bowing out with an 8-3 overall record. Butte Central ended the Bulldogs season with a 37-13 victory in Whitefish. Dillon defeated Butte Central 29-28 in the championship game.
Dillon, Billings Central, Butte Central and Havre are once again expected to be top contenders in the state, but Whitefish is also demanding respect as a top-tier team.
“They’re really focused on making their mark and continuing the tradition,” Ross said of the Bulldogs. “No excuses — we’ve been saying that all summer.”
Ross said the team’s steady offseason training is already showing itself off in the early practices.
“This is the strongest team in the six years I’ve been here,” he said. “Everybody, from the seniors down to the freshmen, is buying in, and that’s really exciting.”
Ross knows this year’s team is surrounded by big expectations, but instead of worrying about the added pressure, he is using it as motivation.
“Everyone says, ‘You could be so good.’ Or, ‘You should be so good,’” Ross said. “I’m telling the guys, well, let’s go out and see what we can do.”
Wildcats Ready to Unleash High-Powered Offense
With dynamic athletes, Columbia Falls seeking return to playoffs for fourth straight year
In only three seasons, head coach Jaxon Schweikert has built an offensive powerhouse in Columbia Falls.
His fourth season should be just as spectacular.
Dynamic junior quarterback Dakota Bridwell and senior running back Stephen Lindsey are part of a talented offensive crew returning for the Wildcats this fall.
Although a few key playmakers have graduated, including all-state wide receiver Ty Morgan and a large chunk of the defense, Schweikert feels confident that this latest team could resemble the Wildcats from a year ago, when they averaged 41.33 points per game.
“I think we have the ability this year to line up and run the ball every down and be really good. We also have the ability to line up and throw it every down and be really good,” Schweikert said.
Columbia Falls kicks off the season Aug. 28 at Corvallis.
A year ago, the Wildcats were one of the top-ranked teams in Class A for most of the fall and finished second in Northwestern A after losing to Whitefish. After qualifying for the postseason for the third year in a row, Columbia Falls dropped a first-round playoff game at home to Hamilton, 27-21.
Bridwell shined in his first year as starter, throwing for 2,269 yards and 25 touchdowns. He completed nearly 64 percent of his passes and threw only six interceptions.
Lindsey will be one of the team’s powerful weapons in the backfield. A year ago he rushed for 500 yards and two touchdowns while sharing carries. He will likely share with another talented back, Trevor Hoerner, who scored fourth touchdowns a season ago.
Class A has undergone a few changes since last year. There are still four conferences, but the Northwestern A and Southwestern A are part of the Western Division, and the Central and East conferences are part of the Eastern Division. Twelve teams will still qualify for the playoffs, including the conference champions from the Northwest, Southwest, Central and Eastern conferences. The No. 2 teams from each conference will also be guaranteed a berth, but the other four seeds will be determined through a power ranking. Two wild cards from the Western Division and two from the East will qualify, regardless of conference, based on power rankings.
Activities directors in Class A made the changes thinking it would ensure the most competitive teams would advance to the state playoffs.
For Columbia Falls, playing in the Northwestern A will be competitive enough. Whitefish returns a solid core of talented players who have their eyes on another postseason run, and Polson is sure to be a tough team to get past.
Schweikert is focusing on finding new players to fill in the defensive holes, of which there are many. Last year’s defense allowed only 9.78 points per game on average. But three all-state players graduated, including linebacker Ike Schweikert.
“Physically, we have some pretty gifted kids. But the experience is lacking,” Jaxon Schweikert said.
“Defensively, we’re just very young. But we feel like in the end they could be a championship defense. There’s going to be growing pains. But it’s OK as long as we keep getting better every week and play our best football at the end of the season.”
Excitement Swirling Around Talented Braves
With 11 returning starters, Flathead eager to rise in the conference standings
A year later, Kyle Samson sees significant progress with the Flathead Braves. Offseason workouts were crowded with motivated players and the first practices were booming with excitement. Samson is eager to see the program take the next step.
“I’ve gotten great support from the school and the town, and it’s just been a great move for me and my family,” the second-year Braves head coach said. “And these kids have been working their tails off. They have really bought into our system and the bar is raised for our program.”
The Braves kick off the season with a tough test in Great Falls against last year’s state runner-up C.M. Rustlers on Aug. 28.
Samson and the Braves are ready to accept the challenge.
“We always tell our guys, to be the best, we’ve got to beat the best. This team is ready to accept any challenge in front of them,” Samson said.
With 11 returning starters, Samson has good reason to believe in the Braves.
Senior running back Josh McCracken is back as one of the best in the state. A year ago, he tallied 1,293 all-purpose yards, sixth most in Montana.
Junior Bridger Johnson will be taking over duties at quarterback, and based on offseason performances, he is looking like a top talent in Class AA.
“He’s had a great offseason and I’m looking forward to seeing some big things from him,” Samson said.
The Braves showed their true talent this summer by winning the University of Idaho summer camp, which featured teams from across Washington, Idaho and Oregon, as well as the Bozeman Hawks.
“Our kids are understanding the offense and defense and what we’re trying to do. And the biggest thing is how much experience we have coming back,” he said.
Last year the Braves enjoyed a rousing start, defeating Helena Capital for the first time in 11 years and going 2-1 in the first three games. But Flathead’s offense struggled from there, finishing the season with only 15.6 points per game on average, third lowest in the state. The defense held opponents to 28.5 ppg. The team’s record ended at 3-7.
This fall the Braves will need to play their best right away. After taking on CMR, Flathead travels to Helena in week two. Helena and CMR are two of the top contenders again this season.
“This team really has a lot of good talent. But what I like most is that they’re buying into being a team and doing this together,” Samson said. “As a coach, that makes me very proud.”
New Season Brings Fresh Goals for Glacier
Following historic championship season, Wolfpack seeking new players to fill in key roles
How does a team follow-up the best season in program history?
That is the daunting task facing this year’s Glacier Wolfpack.
Head coach Grady Bennett has more than a few fresh faces taking over the top roster spots for the high-powered Wolfpack.
Glacier has the challenge of trying to reload after a historic season and qualify for the Class AA playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.
There won’t be a lot of time to iron out the kinks as Glacier opens the season Aug. 28 at Legends Stadium against one of the top teams in the state, Helena. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
Competition will be stiff as always in Class AA. Great Falls C.M. Russell returns the top running back in Montana, Andrew Grinde, who committed to play at Yale in the offseason, and Billings Senior and Helena promise to be title contenders as well.
Last season’s Wolfpack scored an incredible 645 points — 49.6 per game on average — while the defense held opponents to 12.6 points per game on average en route to a perfect 13-0 state championship season.
The first championship in school history is worthy of long-lasting celebration, but instead of fixating on the past, Bennett is focusing on helping this latest squad forge its own identity and establish its own memorable legacy.
“We can’t measure ourselves against the past – the past is the past and that’s over,” he said. “We need to show up everyday and be the best that we can be and make it count.”
Glacier will have a new signal caller in Leif Ericksen, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound senior who backed up Brady McChesney a year ago.
“I really believe he’s one of the most improved football players in our program,” Bennett said. “I’m excited to watch him continue to develop.”
Bennett said Tadan Gilman, a 6-0, 180-pound junior, could fill in at times as a versatile second option at QB.
“He’s such a good athlete, we could use him in some packages and in a lot of different ways,” Bennett said.
Bennett also has a tried-and-true running back in Thomas Trefney, a 6-0, 190-pound senior. Last season Trefney rushed for 1,132 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Trefney is the top offensive weapon back for Glacier, which graduated all eight of its first-team all-state players.
“This group sat in the wings and watched those guys do great things, and now it’s their turn,” Bennett said. “They want to make their mark and they want to take advantage of their shot and their opportunity.”
Bigfork Looks to Reload as Playoff Contender
Vikings seeking seventh-straight district title among stiff competition
The addition of Libby to District 7B means the six-time defending champion Bigfork Vikings have a new team to ward off.
Head coach Todd Emslie is eager to see who will step up and help Bigfork defend its standing atop the conference.
“We’re young. We graduated some really good seniors last year. But everybody goes through that,” Emslie said. “It’s always fun to see who those guys will be who make a name for themselves.”
Bigfork starts the season one week earlier than usual, Aug. 28 at home against Florence in a nonconference matchup.
Last season was another banner year for the Vikings, who went 9-1 and advanced to the Class B state semifinals. Huntley Project eliminated Bigfork 27-6 before narrowly losing to Townsend in the championship, 14-7.
This fall, District 7B saw Libby move from the Northwestern A, while Plains dropped to Class C. Each team appears poised to compete for the playoffs, especially Troy, which boasts the talented Sean Opland.
Emslie said this appears to be most talented the conference has been in his time at Bigfork.
“It’s very competitive. We’ve just set goals of being competitive, too,” he said. “That’s always the No. 1 goal. And you try to win the district, which we’ve done the last six years. There’s a lot of teams that will want to change that.”
A few familiar faces have moved on, including all-state quarterback Josh Sandry. But there is talent in the wings, such as senior Jonathan Landon, who will be leading the offense under center this fall.
Landon, a standout multi-sport athlete who was backup a year ago, appears to be a solid replacement for Sandry.
“I’ve had the privilege of coaching a lot of good quarterbacks down here in Bigfork. Jonny is right up there with the best of all of them in terms of pure passing,” Emslie said.
Matt Farrier could make a name for himself at running back, Emslie said. Adam Jordt has been a consistent threat at wide receiver for the past two seasons, and will help Landon lead the offense. Grant Ozegovich, a senior lineman, is the team’s lone returning all-state player.
Across the state, Townsend appears to be ready to defend its title. Huntley Project is also one of the top teams, along with Fairfield and Missoula Loyola.
But for now, Bigfork is focusing on battling in the Western conference. Eureka is on the rise, Thompson Falls features a talented lineup and Libby and Troy are sure to compete with the best.
“It should really be fun to watch how it plays out in our district,” Emslie said.
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