Guess Who’s Back?

2017 Flathead County high school football preview

By Dillon Tabish
Logan Kolodejchuk, pictured at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 17, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Wildcats Barrel into Season with Playoffs on the Mind

Columbia Falls is reloaded and primed to make a run at the postseason

Logan Kolodejchuk spent his summer as a ranch hand, baling hay and wrangling 60 head of cattle on a daily basis.

That’s bad news for opposing teams this fall.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound running back at Columbia Falls has bulked up even more and is barreling into his senior season as one of the best bruisers in Montana. A broken leg abruptly derailed his stellar junior year and prevented the star back from participating in Columbia Falls’ historic state championship pursuit, but the missed opportunity only provided more motivation for his final season in C-Town.

“It definitely fueled the fire,” he said.

Now a fresh season is accompanied by plenty of excitement as the Wildcats renew their pursuit of the elusive state title. Last year’s team advanced to the state championship game for only the second time in school history and the first since 1970. Dillon bested Columbia Falls, 34-17, but the Wildcats still walked away from their best season in decades.

A new chapter is beginning for a program that has come oh-so-close to that final prize.

“It’s a new season,” head coach Jaxon Schweikert said. “Teams are just so dramatically different from year to year. At a bare minimum, every year we want to be a playoff team.”

This group appears prepared to keep up the tradition of excellence.

With Kolodejchuk leading the backfield, the high-powered Wildcat offense has its engine. With all-around athlete Austin Green taking over quarterbacking duties, the team has its scrambling signal caller.

“He throws a nice ball and he’s very intelligent,” Schweikert said of Green, who is being recruited by colleges for the slot receiver position. “And he adds the running threat to the quarterback position.”

Columbia Falls graduated a bulk of its firepower on offense, including quarterback Dakota Bridwell, who put together one of the best statistical seasons in Montana history a year ago. Also, receivers Trevor Hoerner, Braxton Reiten, Sean Miller and Bryce Fagerland have graduated.

“We don’t have a large amount of experience at the outside receivers, but since we play so many players, a lot of these kids have Friday night experience,” Schweikert said.

Over the years, Schweikert has crafted a fast-paced offensive system that tires out teams and controls the clock, and this year’s playbook should be no different.

But ask Schweikert about his defense this season and his eyes really light up.

“We are going to be really good,” he said of his defense. “We feel we have the best D-line in the state.”

His defensive line is bulky and deep. His linebackers are menacing and quick. And his defensive backs are young yet long. It appears to be a perfect recipe for success.

“We really are strong up front, back and inside out,” he said.

 

Whitefish quarterback Forrest Kobelt looks for an open target. Beacon File Photo

Young Whitefish Rebuilding as Playoff Contender

Bulldogs hope youthful energy and skill will prove successful in new Northwestern A

Few sights excite a football coach more than a crowded weight room.

Head coach Chad Ross has lots to be encouraged by when it comes to this latest Whitefish Bulldogs squad. It’s a young yet highly motivated team that will be taking the field for the season opener on Friday night against Hamilton at home at Memorial Field. The game was originally slated for Saturday but was moved to Friday night at 7 p.m.

Whitefish is eager to bounce back after a challenging campaign a year ago, when the Bulldogs finished 3-5 overall and in fourth place in the Northwestern A conference.

Now it’s a new season and a new conference layout. Following statewide realignments, Northwestern A features six teams: Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Ronan, Libby, Polson and Browning. Ronan and Libby have moved from Class B; Browning has moved from Central A.

Frenchtown, formerly in Northwestern A, has shifted to Southwestern A alongside Dillon, Butte Central, Corvallis, Hamilton and Stevensville. The Central Conference features Belgrade, Lewistown, Havre and Livingston. The Eastern Conference features Billings Central, Miles City, Glendive, Hardin, Laurel and Sidney.

Whitefish has the potential to grow into a state playoff contender, but Ross admits it will take some time to develop into a team similar to the 2015 Bulldogs, which won the Class A state championship.

“It’s a young squad, but it’s athletic and we’re a lot stronger than we were last year,” Ross said. “This reminds me of the ’15 team, but they’re still growing and learning.”

Forrest Kobelt, 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, is the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback and boasts strong athleticism and a command of the offense.

“He’s doing a great job of knowing what he has and what he can do,” Ross said. “He’s definitely one of the leaders on the team.”

Ross also has strong leaders in Aalec Pace, a senior middle linebacker, and Keegan Wold, a junior lineman.

“Aalec and Keegan didn’t miss a day in the weight room,” Ross said.

Senior Alex Barker, a middle linebacker, is also an important playmaker for the Bulldogs.

The changes in the conference are making it more difficult to forecast the season. Columbia Falls and Butte Central are surrounded by buzz. Polson has a new head coach in Pat Danley, who is replacing Scott Wilson. Wilson built Polson into a perennial playoff contender during his successful 16-year tenure before stepping down this offseason to take over the principal position at the high school.

“Right now we’re just trying to compete with ourselves and get better every day,” Ross said. “Everything needs to be a competition.”

Daniel Long is introduced before a game at Legends Stadium. Beacon File Photo

Excitement and Energy Fueling Braves’ Bounce-Back Season

Flathead boasts 16 returning starters and tons of leadership

Toss the preseason rankings and predictions out the window — the Flathead Braves are primed to upset the order in Class AA.

A noticeable energy is buzzing around the Braves this fall as a new season kicks off. After a solid offseason in the weight room and a reinvigorating series of practices, Flathead is standing out as a physical force with 16 returning starters.

“We’ve got good energy and enthusiasm right now,” head coach Kyle Samson said. “We’re executing well and everyone is excited.”

Samson’s teams have always taken pride in preparation, and this latest squad appears no different. Among upperclassmen, size and discipline already look like strong pillars that Flathead hopes to build a successful season upon.

“We’ve got some size this year, which we’ve been lacking a little bit in the past couple years,” he said. “They really are taking the coaching and doing a good job with it.”

The Braves have six senior captains this season: quarterback Taylor Morton, lineman Hunter Wellcome, defensive back Eric Reyna, lineman Michael Lee, linebacker Tucker Nadeau and lineman Daniel Long.

The captains are among 24 seniors who have played in Samson’s system for a few years now and know what it takes to succeed in Class AA.

“Our leadership is huge, and it’s just a really close-knit group that gets along and understands what it takes to work hard and be successful,” Samson said.

Morton is taking over the starting QB role after spending the last two years as the junior varsity signal caller and as backup to Bridger Johnson a season ago. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Morton has become a whiz at understanding Samson’s offense and is poised for a big year under center.

He has a talented support crew around him, including a strong cast of returning starters on the offensive line.

“I think up front will be our strength, on the offensive line and defensive line,” Samson said.

A pair of skilled running backs will share time as the Braves’ dual rushing threat: junior Blake Counts and senior John Baker.

Flathead is focusing on the present and not worrying about last season’s woes, when the Braves finished 3-7 overall. In fact, the team’s underappreciated status is a motivator in many ways.

“I think they have a chip on their shoulder,” Samson said. “Preseason rankings are always based on last year, and we didn’t have the year we wanted last year, but we’re just working hard and focusing on our first game against Butte. We don’t talk about rankings. We’re just trying to get better every day.”

Flathead does find itself in a difficult situation to start the season. The Braves host Butte this Thursday but have to play the game in Bigfork due to delays at Legends Stadium, where new artificial turf is being installed. The turf was scheduled to be completed by the season opener but has been delayed for a number of reasons, including construction hurdles and permitting issues with the city.

“It’s disappointing to not have this game at home when the turf was supposed to be ready by now,” Samson said. “We can’t do anything about it and it’s out of our control.”

Jackson Pepe rushes past Helena defenders. Beacon File Photo

Fast-Attacking Wolfpack Among Montana’s Best

Glacier is reloaded with speed, depth and plenty of playoff experience

One word aptly describes this latest Glacier Wolfpack squad — speedy.

Head coach Grady Bennett has a bona fide track team in pads this season. The Pack offense features two of the fastest sprinters in Montana, Drew Turner and Ethan Larson.

Turner, a 6-foot-0, 207-pound running back, is entering his senior season as a first-team Class AA all-state selection who rushed for 1,617 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago. Larson, a 6-1, 170-pound wide receiver, has all-state accolades in track similar to Turner and is poised for a monster senior season.

Glacier also has a new face joining the mix of quickness. Mark Estes, a 6-foot, 160-pounder, has transferred from Drummond, where he was a three-time state champion sprinter and all-state quarterback. Estes’ family has moved to Kalispell, and the multi-talented senior is suiting up for Glacier, slated to fill in at wide receiver and defensive back.

Glacier graduated several key players from last year’s state runner-up squad, including quarterback Tadan Gilman, defensive end Jaxen Hashley and receiver Patrick O’Connell.

But after only the first week of practice, Bennett said he was already seeing a new group of upperclassmen step up to fill those leadership roles.

“This class so far is off to a great start,” Bennett said. “They are establishing the habits and culture that we need to continue to be successful.”

Senior Brady Peiffer, 6-0, 155 pounds, is taking over QB duties after serving as Gilman’s backup a year ago.

Senior Jackson Pepe, 6-1, 190 pounds, is one of the top returning receivers in the state and recently verbally committed to play for the Montana Grizzlies.

The defense boasts a speedy set of players just like the offense, Bennett said.

Senior Jared Brenden, 5-10, 197 pounds, is back at linebacker alongside senior Hunter Rauthe, 6-2, 180 pounds. Caden Harkins, 6-0, 160 pounds, is back at cornerback.

Bennett is also enjoying a level of depth that the team has lacked in some ways in recent years. There are roughly 25 players in each class, which is creating good competition at the junior varsity and varsity levels, he said.

“Our numbers are better than they have been in six or seven years,” he said.

Indeed, success can attract participation. This latest squad is eager to continue a remarkable streak at Glacier, which has advanced to the state semifinals six years in a row and played in its third championship game a year ago. Last year’s team finished 11-2.

Although the preseason expectations are high, Bennett said he’s excited to see this team grow week by week and chase its potential.

No doubt, the team doesn’t have time to ease into it.

Defending state champ Billings Senior appears to be the team to beat once again. Fans will get a rematch of the Class AA title game in the season opener when Glacier hosts Billings this Friday. Due to delays during construction of the new artificial turf in Legends Stadium, Glacier is forced to host its first two home games in Columbia Falls. Friday’s game will be played at Columbia Falls at 7 p.m. Unless Legends Stadium is ready by Sept. 1, that game against Great Falls C.M. Russell will also be played in Columbia Falls.

A Bigfork player makes a sliding catch in the end zone. Beacon File Photo

Vikes Bring Playoff Experience to New Western B Division

Bigfork welcomes back strong group of veteran leaders, playmakers

After losing only four seniors, the Bigfork Vikings return a talented, experienced group that is excited to compete in a newly organized Western B division.

Bigfork is now among seven teams vying for four berths to the Class B state playoffs. The new Western B features Bigfork, Eureka, Thompson Falls, Florence, Missoula Loyola, Anaconda and Deer Lodge. It’s a new alignment for many teams following a reclassification process by the Montana High School Association over the winter. Libby is returning to Class A and will compete in Northwestern A. In football, Troy and Mission have moved to Class C eight-man.

The West is home to the top two teams from a year ago: Eureka defeated Missoula Loyola with a last-second 38-yard Hail Mary to win the state championship 28-25. Quarterback Garrett Graves is back in Eureka hoping for another playoff run as is a tough Loyola team.

But the Vikings are right there in the hunt, too.

“We only lost four seniors, one of them being Matt Farrier, who was huge for us,” head coach Todd Emslie said. “But a lot of these kids have played a lot of football already.”

Emslie’s son, Augie, a 6-foot-0, 175-pound senior, is back as Bigfork’s starting quarterback. Emslie threw 18 touchdowns and only seven interceptions a year ago in his first season as starter and guided the Vikes to a 7-2 overall record and the state playoffs. Fairfield eliminated Bigfork 56-12 in the opening round.

Emslie is surrounded by skill and experience. Senior center Ashton Edgerton, 5-10, 185 pounds, is back alongside a powerful line that includes Logan Gilliard, a 6-2, 180-pound junior guard and middle linebacker, and Logan Kaminsky, a senior guard and defensive tackle at 6-0, 200 pounds.

Emslie’s favorite target, junior Anders Epperly, is back at wide receiver. Also, Logan Taylor, a standout senior tight end at 6-1, 185 pounds, is also poised for a big year.

“I’ve got three tight ends that could start on any team I’ve ever had,” Todd Emslie said. “There’s some really talented kids there and the same with the wide out positions.”

Emslie said his team is excited to hold its own in the highly competitive Western B. Bigfork will get a shot at Eureka at home on Sept. 15 and on the road against Loyola in the second-to-last game of the regular season, Oct. 13, which could prove pivotal for playoff positioning.

“This (realignment) makes some strong divisions, and the West is going to be tough,” Emslie said, highlighting Thompson Falls as another powerful conference opponent.

Bigfork kicks off the season on the road against Shelby on Friday.

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