Northwestern Powers

This corner of Montana is home to five football teams playing in state championship games this week

By Dillon Tabish
Glacier captains, from left, Kellen Bemis, Patrick O'Connell, Tadan Gilman and Jaxen Hashley take the field. Glacier defeats Helena 29-14 on Nov. 11, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

From fireworks decorating the sky in Eureka to the crowded concrete bleachers in Hot Springs, from the foggy field at Legends Stadium and the passionate communities traveling hundreds of miles from Columbia Falls and Charlo, the vitality of high school football reverberated last weekend across Northwest Montana.

This is an unprecedented — and historic — moment for this corner of Big Sky Country. In the mammoth landscape of Montana, spanning 147,164 square miles, five football teams within 135 miles of each other are all playing for state championships in each of the respective classifications — Glacier in Class AA, Columbia Falls in Class A, Eureka in Class B, Charlo in Class C eight-man and Hot Springs in Class C six-man.

In a sport often ruled by the powerhouse programs of Central and Eastern Montana, this has never happened before, not this many Northwest teams dominating all at once. In fact, only twice in the last 30 years has Northwest Montana had even two teams playing in the final week of the season — last year and in 1986, when Whitefish and Arlee were still alive both times.

Glacier is playing in its third title game in four seasons and is within reach of its second crown, a remarkable feat for a program in only its 10th season. After rallying past Helena 29-14 on a foggy Friday night game in Kalispell, the Wolfpack (11-1) will travel to Billings to play the Senior Broncs (12-0) on Friday night. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. in Daylis Stadium.

The Wolfpack rallied from a 14-0 deficit to defeat Helena in a game plagued by dense fog that blanketed Legends Stadium and made it difficult for players to keep track of high passes and kicks on more than one occasion.

The Pack defense bottled up the Bengals in the second half as the offense scored 29 unanswered points. Running back Drew Turner rushed 26 times for 187 yards and a touchdown and had one catch for 26 yards. For the season, the junior rusher has 1,548 yards on the ground and 19 touchdowns along with 142 yards receiving and another two TDs. Quarterback Tadan Gilman finished with 70 yards rushing and two TDs along with 103 yards passing. He connected with Jaxen Hashley on a 5-yard TD strike.

“There’s going to be adversity in any big game like this and it’s which team will handle it best and keep believing. That’s exactly what our kids did tonight,” Glacier head coach Grady Bennett said after the win, which occurred in the Wolfpack’s sixth consecutive semifinal appearance.

“This group of kids is special.”

Columbia Falls (10-1) is hosting its first state championship game since 1970, at 1 p.m. on Saturday against a familiar rival, Dillon (9-1).

“It’s been a long time,” said Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart, who played linebacker and center for the 1970 Wildcat squad. “There’s been a lot of good football players going through the program. Everything seems to be lining up right for this group. They have an awesome team.”

The Wildcats, led by a history-making quarterback, are chasing their first title. Dillon is appearing in its sixth consecutive championship game and looking for its sixth title since 2005. Whitefish defeated the Beavers in last year’s title contest 17-13.

Columbia Falls quarterback Dakota Bridwell was 13-for-38 for 360 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Wildcats past Belgrade 38-7 in the road semifinal game. The senior standout now has 47 TD passes, most in Montana history in one season, according to the Montana High School Association. Sean Miller had two catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, and Braxton Reiten had five catches for 106 yards and two TDs. Bryce Fagerland had a 76-yard TD, while Brandon Karberg kicked a 20-yard field goal. Trey Gates had three catches for 98 yards.

The significance of this weekend’s championship game is not lost on a community hoping for its first top trophy. Havre defeated Columbia Falls 34-18 in the 1970 game, which featured a blanket of fog covering Sattherthwaite Memorial Stadium similar to last Friday’s matchup in Kalispell. That game drew more than 2,000 fans, an experience Barnhart remembers and hopes to see again this weekend.

In Class B, Eureka has a tight-knit group of talented players leading the Lions to their first championship game since 1990. The Lions (10-1) will travel to Missoula to play the Loyola Rams on Saturday at Rollin Field. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.

Cannan Smith, a speedy senior running back, provided the spark for Eureka, which trailed 7-6 at halftime. Smith had five touchdowns and Eureka defeated Whitehall 36-7 last weekend, a home game crowded with more than 200 people who celebrated the win with fireworks and high emotions. The Lions are seeking their first state title.

“I’ve met up with several old-timers here who have tears running down their faces,” Eureka head coach Trevor Utter said. “It’s unbelievable for our town.”

The Loyola Rams, who defeated Fairfield 24-21 on Saturday, are playing in their third title contest in five years. Loyola won back-to-back championships in 2012-13.

In the Class C six-man ranks, Hot Springs defeated Valier 58-8 last weekend and advanced to the championship. Hot Springs will travel 682 miles to Plentywood to play Mon-Dak in the title contest on Saturday. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. The Savage Heat are seeking their second title and first since 2012. Mon-Dak, a co-op team made up of players from Westby and Grenora, North Dakota, is playing in its second title game in three years.

In the win over Valier, Trevor Paro had four touchdowns for Hot Springs, hiking his all-time career TD record to 130. Sean Shea had two scores, and Kane Lawson added two more TDs for the Heat.

In Class C eight-man, Charlo is playing in its first title game since 1976. The Vikings (11-1) will host Ennis (12-0) in the championship on Saturday at 1 p.m. Charlo defeated Belt 50-35 in the semifinal round and Ennis defeated Wibaux 46-6. Charlo is seeking its first title in 40 years. The Vikes won the Class C championship in 1976, 56-12 over Carter County. The team also won the Class C championship in 1950, 32-14 over Belgrade. Ennis is playing in its second title game in four years. The Mustangs defeated Wibaux 68-56 in 2013.

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