With the new high school football season comes renewed excitement for each of Flathead County’s five teams.
Here’s a breakdown of the latest squads:
Flathead Seeking Heightened Success with Solid Core
Braves bring back 10 starters whose motto is ‘Unfinished Business’
The taste of success is sweet, and it’s motivating this year’s Flathead Braves to keep their exciting revival alive.
Head coach Kyle Samson welcomes back 10 starters and a large group of underclassmen who are collectively playing with a noticeable pep in their step entering the fall.
“I’m very, very happy with where we’re at,” Samson said. “The work the guys have put in this summer has really helped us coming into the fall as far as being ahead of the game. I’ve really liked our excitement and leadership and a lot of positive energy on the football field.”
The Braves open the new season at Legends Stadium against Great Falls C.M. Russell on Aug. 26 at 7 p.m.
With a strong contingent of returning players, Flathead is hoping to build on last year’s success. A year ago, the team jumped out to a 3-1 start for the first time since 2006 and picked up a big win over CMR, the reigning state runner-ups. It sparked noticeable excitement around the program, which advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The team finished 6-5 overall after falling 15-0 to Helena Capital in the first round of the Class AA playoffs.
“We’re very proud of what we did last year,” Samson said. “But we want to take the next step in the program, so we’re not just happy or satisfied with making the playoffs. We want to get there and our goal is to compete for a state championship.”
Senior Bridger Johnson, standing 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, is back at quarterback after a stellar junior season, when he passed for 1,466 yards and 12 touchdowns. Senior running back Seth Adolph is also back to replace Josh McCracken, who became the Braves’ reliable battering ram in the backfield with 1,345 yards and 18 TDs.
Senior James Flannigan is back at receiver a year after tallying 470 yards, second most on the team.
On defense, senior linebacker Jonas Nyman is returning from an injury with a lot of potential for a big season, while one of the state’s best cornerbacks, Trae Vasquez, is following up a season in which he snatched five interceptions. Two powerful linemen — junior Daniel Long and senior Matt Gash-Gilder — are anchoring the defense in the trenches.
“I really believe what will take us to the next step is our leadership, day in and day out,” Samson said. “And we want to outwork everybody. We want to make sure we’re the hardest-working team. We might not be the most talented or absolute biggest or best, but we want to work hard.”
Off the field, Samson is leading weekly film nights for Braves fans at Fatt Boy’s Bar & Grille. The public events are Sept. 7, Oct. 19 and Oct. 26 from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Samson will go over highlights from the previous week’s game and preview the week’s upcoming matchup.
“Now that we’ve had success, they’re really looking forward to not just being satisfied,” Samson said of the Braves.
“We want to be the best.”
Perennial Contenders, Glacier Aims to Keep Streak Alive
Wolfpack looks to reload a season after advancing to semifinals for fifth year in a row
Several questions surrounded last year’s Glacier Wolfpack. Primarily, how would a team of mostly new faces follow up a championship season?
The answers were resounding: by winning nine of 12 games, advancing to the state semifinals for the fifth year in a row, picking up the program’s first road playoff victory, and defeating Helena for the first time.
The proud tradition only grew stronger, and that’s what this year’s Pack is focused on continuing.
“The expectations of where we’ve been and where we expect to be are so ingrained now,” head coach Grady Bennett said. “The kids go about everything with that high standard and belief and confidence.”
Glacier opens the new season with back-to-back road games, starting at Helena on Aug. 26 followed by a road trip to Bozeman to play the defending state champs on Sept. 2. The home opener is Sept. 9 against Helena Capital.
Senior Tadan Gilman, a quick, versatile athlete, will take over quarterbacking duties for Glacier, replacing Leif Ericksen, who graduated. Gilman, at 6-foot, 205 pounds, recently verbally committed to play for Montana State University next year along with Jaxen Hashley, a standout defensive lineman entering his senior season for Glacier. Hashley is returning to the field after missing the second half of last season due to a knee injury. Gilman earned first team all-state honors at linebacker a year ago.
“Tadan is doing a great job,” Bennett said. “I’m really happy with his progress and happy with what he’s doing.”
Glacier has built a strong foundation with multi-sport athletes, and this year’s team follows that pattern. Three members of the state champion short-relay team — Scout Willcut, Ethan Larson and Drew Turner — are leading the Pack’s speed revival. Willcut and Larson will both line up as top receiving targets, while Turner will take most of the carries at running back, replacing Thomas Trefney, who had a monster senior season a year ago and accrued 29 touchdowns.
Turner looks poised to keep up Glacier’s tradition of strong backs, alongside a deep group of other quick options.
“We’re excited to let him go,” Bennett said of Turner.
“We have a lot of guys we can hand it to, and we’ll be more diverse in the run game.”
Glacier also welcomes back Kellen Bemis, an honorable mention Class AA all-state center, Sam Barber, a second team all-state safety, and Cameron Anderson, a second team all-state kicker.
Compared to recent years, Glacier is all around younger with a relatively small senior class, but Bennett is looking at that as an opportunity for the team to come together and build strong chemistry.
“The last time we had a small class we started out worried a little bit, but that team went to (the school’s) first state championship,” Bennett said. “So this is a good challenge for these guys – to really step up and lead and help those juniors along.”
“These guys know they need those juniors and sophomores to contribute,” he added, “and that helps build your team and builds a strong bond.”
Loaded with Talent and Experience, Columbia Falls Aims for Greatness
Twelve all-conference players are back for the Wildcats, fueling high aspirations
Typically, the first week of fall practice is a slow process of shaking off the summer rust and sharpening that competitive edge.
Not in Columbia Falls. The Wildcats are already roaring and ready to go.
“Our practices have been excellent. It’s been a tremendous start,” head coach Jaxon Schweikert said.
The Wildcats enter a new fall campaign with tremendous potential and ambition. Nearly the entire starting offense is back, including Dakota Bridwell, an all-conference senior quarterback entering his third year as starter. All together, Columbia Falls brings back 12 all-conference players from a year ago, when the Wildcats went 5-4 overall and advanced to the second round of the Class A playoffs.
“If they play to their potential, they will be hard for anybody to beat,” Schweikert, in his fifth season as head coach, said of the Cats. “This will be the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Columbia Falls kicks off the season at home against Corvallis on Aug. 26.
The Wildcats have developed into a perennial playoff contender in recent years and have consistently produced a high-powered offense that averages over 100 plays a game, well beyond the typical high school playbook.
With Bridwell and Co. back, that exciting pace should only quicken this season. A year ago, the Wildcat quarterback accrued 1,553 passing yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 172 yards per game. Against Browning, he set a new Class A record for touchdown passes with seven. It tied the all-class mark for a single game, according to the Montana High School Association.
“He is playing at an extremely high level. He’s throwing the ball extremely well,” Schweikert said of Bridwell’s progress entering his senior season. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Bridwell’s favorite target, senior Braxton Reiten, is back as the team’s speedy slot receiver. Reiten had over 250 yards and three touchdowns last season. Senior receiver Wyatt Green is also back as a top target; he caught three touchdowns and tallied over 200 yards last year. Senior Trevor Hoerner, who has committed to play for the Montana Grizzlies next year, is also poised for a big season at receiver.
There are several defining qualities about this latest group, but Schweikert thinks the team’s speed and size will shine brightest.
“We’re very quick and we have really good size. Our offensive line is huge,” he said.
Leading in the trenches, senior lineman Zach Baker is one of the best in the state and has garnered attention from the University of Montana and Montana State.
“We really have 13 kids who could play college football next year,” Schweikert said.
In order to reach its end goal, Columbia Falls will have to battle a familiar rival, Polson, which is also one of the top teams in the state this year. Dillon also returns a bulk of talent from last year’s state runner-up squad.
Following Championship Season, Whitefish Hoping to Keep Momentum
A new unit of Bulldogs is ready to reload after last year’s historic finish
The excitement of last year’s championship season still surrounds the Whitefish Bulldogs. Now this latest squad is ready to build a memorable legacy of its own.
“We’re not the team we were last year but this group is excited to establish its own identity. They’ve got a great attitude going into this season,” head coach Chad Ross said.
The Bulldogs return to the field this week for the first time since last November, when Whitefish edged Dillon 17-13 in the Class A state championship game to cap the historic 11-1 season with the team’s first state title since 1979.
Whitefish hosts Havre on Aug. 27 at 2 p.m.
The Bulldogs graduated seven all-state players in key positions: quarterback Luke May, running back Chris Park, receiver Jed Nagler and defenders Chaffin Ross, Steven Quimby, Brian FauntLeRoy and Alex Curry.
Now a new unit is ready to step up and fill those large shoes.
Thirteen seniors are leading this year’s crew, including Travis Catina, a returning all-state safety. Senior Derek Kastella will move from backup to starting quarterback and boasts a strong arm that has shined during recent baseball seasons. Kastella has traveled with the varsity team all four years and studied behind May.
“Now he gets to step up. He’s done a great job and been a leader and is taking on some of that responsibility,” Ross said.
Kastella will have the protection of a strong offensive line, which brings back three starters.
“The strength of our line will open up a lot for us,” Ross said. “This is probably one of the better offensive lines we’ve ever had.”
Several other players with experience are poised for big years, including senior receiver Tyler Cote, defensive lineman Patrick McGeady and senior running back Zander Wold.
Ross said this year’s team is well-rounded with depth at several positions.
“We’re deep all the way across,” he said. “We’re filling out the right positions.”
The Bulldogs will get an early test when they travel to Dillon in a rematch of last year’s title game. Dillon brings back a bulk of last year’s squad — 24 players total — including quarterback Troy Andersen. Whitefish will also have a tough conference schedule against playoff contenders Polson (Sept. 30) and Columbia Falls (Oct. 7).
Not to be intimidated, the Bulldogs are ready to keep the enthusiasm and momentum from last season alive.
“They’re excited to be out there and have their own chance,” Ross said.
Young Vikings Ready to Keep Proud Tradition Alive
After graduating several talented seniors, Bigfork is looking for new players to step up
The Bigfork Vikings may be young on paper, but on the field this team is skilled beyond its years.
Fourteen seniors graduated from last year’s Western B championship team, including quarterback Jon Landon and receiver/cornerback Adam Jordt.
Head coach Todd Emslie is excited to see another crew of Vikings emerge as the torchbearers of a proud program that has won seven district titles in a row and become a perennial playoff contender.
Bigfork kicks off the season on the road in Troy on Aug. 26.
“Obviously we lost a lot of seniors but there’s a lot of kids working to fill those starting roles,” Emslie said. “We had a lot of younger kids that played last year, too.”
Emslie’s son, Augie, will take over the starting role at quarterback after serving as JV starter a year ago and as the backup to Landon.
“He’s got some big shoes to fill. He knows. But he’s been around it his whole life,” Emslie said of his son. “There’s a lot of great talent around him.”
Most notably, Bigfork will lean on senior running back Matthew Farrier, who tallied 1,550 yards and 13 touchdowns last year to lead the Vikes.
A season ago, Bigfork went 6-4 overall and edged out the Western 7B championship from Thompson Falls. The Vikes eked out a 37-36 victory over Roundup in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to Missoula Loyola, 26-16. Farrier had 198 yards rushing on 18 carries and 86 yards receiving on five catches in the Loyola game.
Eureka looks to be a force in the Western 7B mix, as well as Thompson Falls. Kody Hoffman, a former standout football player at Troy and University of Montana-Western, is taking over as head coach of the Trojans, who went 2-6 overall a year ago.
Loyola looks like the preseason favorite in Class B. The Rams advanced to the semifinal round of the state playoffs a year ago before losing 21-14 to Huntley Project.
Emslie said the first week of practice has been about reminding the young players to focus on every small detail, which will lead to big results. He is confident that this latest team will answer the call.
“We got a really good group out this fall,” Emslie said of the 45 players out for football. “We just need to play within ourselves and try and play mistake-free football.”