The legacy of the 1979 state champion football team remains strong in Whitefish. Longtime residents and fans still regard that glorious season as one of the town’s crowning sports achievements.
Now there’s another mighty squad joining the local sports lore.
On a frozen field in Beaverhead County on Nov. 21, the Whitefish Bulldogs triumphed over the Dillon Beavers 17-13 to win the Class A football state championship, capping their remarkable 11-1 season with the first title in 36 years.
“The kids just believed in themselves,” head coach Chad Ross said afterward. “They really stepped up and performed when they needed to.”
Built around a core group of talented seniors who have played together for years, these Bulldogs chased destiny all season, determined to claim their place in history.
At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the celebration will be complete with a ride through downtown on the fire department’s trucks.
They earned it.
Their final test was a daunting one. Dillon came into the game as the two-time defending champions with an undefeated 10-0 record. The hometown crowd was out in force on a frigid day. And in the first half, the Bulldogs lost one of their top players, Chris Park, who scored a touchdown in the first quarter but suffered a torn ACL in the second quarter.
Nevertheless, Whitefish was not to be denied.
Senior quarterback Luke May passed for one touchdown and ran for another, Haley Nicholson kicked a 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and the Bulldog defense had two interceptions and stuffed a late-drive by Dillon.
With four buses of Whitefish fans making the nearly five-hour trip for the team’s first title game appearance in 14 years, the Bulldogs jumped ahead early and led 14-7 at halftime. Dillon’s Payton Lafrentz caught a 44-yard TD pass in the third quarter but the Beavers missed the extra point, making it 14-13. Nicholson added the field goal to make it 17-13 entering the final quarter.
Dillon got the ball back with barely four minutes left, trailing four points in a similar situation as earlier this season when Whitefish led throughout the game. In that regular-season game, the Beavers marched down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes.
Not this time. The Bulldog defense kept Dillon from scoring late on two occasions, including a last-second heave into the end zone that was batted down by a Whitefish defender.
A year after advancing to the semifinal round for the first time since 2002, the powerful Bulldogs cruised through this season on a mission, winning the Northwestern A conference for the second year in a row and charging into the playoffs as a top contender. The team’s only loss came against Dillon early in the regular season, and it proved motivational for a squad loaded with seniors hoping to go out on top.
Park finished with 69 yards rushing on 12 carries. He capped his impressive senior season with 1,198 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
May, who will throw javelin for the University of Minnesota next year, finished 12 of 22 for 162 yards passing with a TD and an interception. He also rushed for 94 yards and another score, a two-yard run. May finished his senior season with 1,835 yards passing and 18 touchdowns. He also rushed for 925 yards and another 18 TDs.
Senior receiver Jed Nagler, who will play for the Montana Grizzlies next fall, had seven catches for 132 yards. Nagler finished with 784 yards receiving and seven TDs. Brian FauntLeRoy ended his season with 532 yards receiving and seven TDs.
“The community really got behind us and it’s cool how these games can ignite a community,” Ross said.
“We talked about how we’ve had a great season and we’ll always remember it. But if we win this game the community will remember it forever. That’s pretty special.”
Whitefish 7 7 0 3 — 17
Dillon 0 7 6 0 — 13
W – Chris Park 6 pass from Luke May (Haley Nicholson kick)
W – May 2 run (Nicholson kick)
D – Nate Simkins 8 pass from Troy Andersen (Payton Lafrentz kick)
D – Lafrentz 44 pass from Andersen (kick failed)
W – Nicholson 22 FG
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