Searching for Gridiron Glory

Four Flathead Valley high school teams are in the quarterfinals of the state football playoffs, and all four believe they have a chance to win it all

Bigfork Head Coach Todd Emslie has led plenty of high-caliber teams in his nearly two decades as the Vikings head coach, including the one that claimed the 2010 state championship in thrilling fashion, still the only title in school history.

That season capped a swift turn-of-fortune for a team that had dropped from Class A to B in 2009, the same year they brought back a head coach, Emslie, who had stepped down five years earlier. Suddenly, the Vikings went from being the smallest public school in Class A to one of the largest in Class B. It is, in part, how a team that went 1-31 from 2005-08 won at least a share of its conference title each of the next seven years. But the last two seasons have seen the Vikings take an unprecedented step out of the spotlight as Eureka won the 2016 and 2017 Class B state titles and dethroned Bigfork atop the conference.

This year, though, feels a little more 2010 than 2017. Bigfork lost just once in the regular season, to longtime rival Missoula Loyola, and the core of the football team bears a striking resemblance to the group of boys who took the Vikings to a state basketball championship in the early spring.

There’s Anders Epperly (quarterback/point guard), Randy Stultz (running back/sixth-man), Logan Gilliard (lineman/wing) and the pass-catching Reichenbach twins, Colton and Clayton, who added a state title in doubles tennis after the basketball season, just to name a few. There are 11 total seniors on Bigfork’s football roster this season, a group that is freakishly athletic, extremely close-knit, and battle-tested in games with high stakes.

“We’ve been through a lot during basketball and a lot during this football season,” Epperly said. “We’ve got a good group and we’re all confident in each other. I feel like we can do it.”

It, of course, is bringing Bigfork another state football championship. And while Epperly and the rest of the team know well that it’s not an easily attainable goal, they’ve already proven once that they can join together to earn some hardware.

“I honestly believe that there’s six teams right now that are still playing that could win it all and I think we’re one of them, honestly,” Emslie said. “It just takes a huge mental commitment right now to do it; to finish it.”

Anders Epperly makes a throw during Bigfork football practice on Oct. 25, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Bigfork’s Big Eleven

Bigfork’s loss to Loyola was a turning point, and time will tell whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The Vikings were ranked No. 1 in the state entering that contest and had already expressed two years of frustration with a 37-0 whipping of Eureka in September, but against the Rams, Bigfork coughed up a halftime lead by allowing 13 unanswered second-half points.

The Vikings (8-1) would like to see Loyola again, but by virtue of that regular season loss Bigfork has been pushed into the other side of the bracket, meaning the two schools could only rematch in the state championship game. Until then, Bigfork must endure a brutal path that actually began on Oct. 27 when the Vikings hammered Townsend 47-13. Next on the schedule is Roundup, the top seed out of Eastern B, fresh off a 60-14 shellacking of Cut Bank. The Panthers (9-0) and Vikings will tangle at 1 p.m. on Nov. 3 in Roundup, and if Bigfork does manage to advance they would likely face another undefeated team, Fairfield, in the state semifinals.

Bottom row from left: Luke Taylor, Randy Stultz and Luke Schmit. Top row from left: Anders Epperly, Clayton Reichenbach, Brody Lamar, Colton Reichenbach, Logan Gilliard, Brady Thorness, Jacob Herd and Mac Mischke. Bigfork football practice on Oct. 25, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“We’re going to have to stick together because it’s going to be a long road,” Epperly said.

If any group has the mettle to stick together, of course, it is the 11-man senior class that has had the rest of Class B looking up at them for most of the last year.

“They’ve won an awful lot of games, on the football field and on the basketball court, over the year,” Emslie said. “It’s just great to be around them; aside from being great athletes they’re just awesome humans. They’re so much fun to be around.”

And like with their basketball team, Bigfork’s strength may well be its depth. Epperly has transitioned nicely into the quarterback position this year, completing more than 60 percent of his passes and throwing 16 touchdowns, but opposing defenses must stop a lot more than just the signal-caller. Stultz has run for 13 scores and averaged just under 93 yards per game on the ground, and fellow seniors Luke Schmit (36 receptions, 530 yards), Luke Taylor (299 rushing yards), Brady Thorness (324 receiving yards) and Gilliard (10.5 tackles for loss) have also made major contributions.

“We’re tough in that way, we can do a lot of different things,” Emslie said. “That’s the thing, you’ve got to watch out for a bunch of different kids out there. You can’t really focus on one, you’ve got to watch them all.”

Glacier High School football players take the field before a game against Helena High on Sept. 14, 2018. The Wolfpack won 48-14 at Legends Stadium. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Wolfpack, Braves Part of Wide-Open Class AA Field

Four weeks ago, it didn’t look like the Glacier High School would even make the Class AA playoffs. At 1-5 after a 35-28 loss to Missoula Sentinel, Wolfpack Head Coach Grady Bennett changed his approach and huddled his team together.

“I said ‘you guys are 1-5 and you can win it all,’” Bennett recalled one day after his team beat Missoula Hellgate 40-21 on Oct. 25 to sew up a playoff spot. “And about 50 percent (of the players) looked at me like I was stupid. This year it just feel like anybody can win, it’s the most open it’s ever been.”

Glacier (5-5) begins its playoff journey Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. on the road at Helena (8-2). The Wolfpack is the No. 6 seed, winning a four-way tiebreaker to earn that spot and a rematch with a team they crushed 48-14 at Legends Stadium on Sept. 14, a score that reinforces just how up for grabs Class AA feels.

Much of the Wolfpack’s revival can be credited to senior running back Preston Blain, someone who Bennett thought would never see the varsity field when he first stepped into the program four years ago.

“He didn’t play as a freshman, his nickname was meatball, and I looked at him (and thought) he was never doing to be a AA football player,” Bennett said. “But he didn’t quit. He just kept working, kept developing, and he started to show signs and now I think he’s getting better every game.”

Bennett called Blain’s journey “an awesome program story,” and the senior has rushed for 1,569 yards and 23 touchdowns already this season, one of the best stat lines in the state.

That said, the senior running back across town is having quite a season of his own. Flathead’s Blake Counts has set the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,859 yards and 18 touchdowns, and his Braves are hosting a playoff game for the second consecutive season. No. 4 Flathead (7-3) will welcome two-time defending state champion Billings Senior (6-4) on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. at Legends Stadium.

Flathead was the No. 4 seed in last season’s playoffs as well but lost 24-10 to Helena Capital.

The Columbia Falls Wildcats take the field before the 2017 state championship game. Columbia Falls defeated Hamilton 26-14. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Run-First Wildcats Poised to Pounce

The defending Class A state champions lost their first game of the 2018 season, a 35-24 decision against Hamilton in a rematch of the prior year’s title tilt, but the Columbia Falls Wildcats have spent the next eight weeks doing nothing but improving.

Columbia Falls (7-1) comfortably won the Northwest A conference and put together on the best offensive seasons in recent memory, averaging 54.1 points and more than 300 rushing yards per game.

“We’ve figured out our offensive identity a little bit,” Wildcats coach Jaxon Schweikert said. “We like to run the ball, we like our short passing game a lot and we like our screens a lot.”

The rushing attack is led by all-state battering ram Colten McPhee, who’s piled up 1,577 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns despite a limited workload. McPhee is averaging just 18 rushes per game but picks up more than 11 yards per carry. Opposing defenses won’t be so lucky in the playoffs.

“We haven’t overloaded him, the season is a marathon,” Schweikert said. “The playoffs are a sprint.”

The Wildcats enjoyed a first-round bye last week and will host Lewistown (8-2) in the quarterfinals on Nov. 3 at 1 p.m. A win in that game would set up a likely rematch with Hamilton and a chance to show the Broncs just how much better the Wildcats have been playing.

“We thought we could be a little bit better offensively (than last year), and we are,” Schweikert said. “And defensively we’ve just gotten better and better and better.”

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