For the first time since Kalispell became a two-high school town, the Flathead Braves have reached the semifinals of the Class AA state football tournament.
Flathead (8-3) crushed two-time defending state champion Billings Senior 52-35 on Nov. 2 at Legends Stadium behind an overpowering rushing attack, sending the Braves to Bozeman for a matchup with the undefeated Hawks on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
In Friday’s state quarterfinal, the Braves ran the ball on 54 of their 66 plays, piling up a whopping 508 yards on the ground to win a playoff game for the first time since 2006, when now-Miami Dolphins quarterback Brock Osweiler was just a sophomore.
Against the Broncs (6-5), Flathead found the end zone six times in the first half and took a 42-21 lead into halftime. The game was essentially over by the time the fourth quarter started, with the Braves holding a comfortable 49-21 advantage.
Running back Blake Counts had yet another monster game in the victory, racking up 294 yards on 29 carries and scoring four touchdowns. Counts had already broken Flathead’s single-season rushing record, shattering a mark held by former NFL rusher Lex Hilliard, and now has 2,162 yards on the ground in just 11 games this year. The senior is averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season.
Quarterback Jaden MacNeil also had a big day on the ground against Senior, rushing 17 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns. MacNeil needed to complete only four passes in the win, all to Anthony Jones, including a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Flathead and Bozeman (11-0) met back on Sept. 28 with the Hawks winning 49-34 on their home field. The Braves last reached the state championship game in 2000 and have not won a state title since 1970.
Elsewhere in Class AA, Glacier (5-6) saw its season come to an end with a 21-7 loss at Helena. The Wolfpack had won four straight games to close out the regular season but never could get going offensively against the Bengals. Senior running back Preston Blain scored the Wolfpack’s lone touchdown on a 2-yard run in the first quarter. Helena (9-2) advances to take on Billings West (10-1) in the other Class AA semifinal on Nov. 9.
In Class A, Columbia Falls advanced in defense of its 2017 state title with a nail-biting 23-22 win against Lewistown on Nov. 3. The Wildcats (8-1) led 16-0 at halftime before the Eagles stormed back and had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter before Columbia Falls stopped a two-point conversion try.
Running back Colten McPhee led the way offensively for the Wildcats with 230 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, but Columbia Falls managed just 65 passing yards in the game.
The win sets up another rematch of last year’s state championship game between the Wildcats and Hamilton on Nov 10 at 1 p.m. in Columbia Falls. The two teams met early in the regular season this year, with the Broncs handing the Wildcats their only loss, 35-24. Columbia Falls beat Hamilton 26-14 at Satterthwaite Field in last year’s state title game.
In Class B, Bigfork went on the road and put an emphatic end to previously undefeated Roundup’s season, hammering the Panthers 43-18.
The impressive Vikings (9-1) blew the game open in the second half, scoring 19 unanswered points to build an insurmountable 36-12 lead. Randy Stultz had a big day offensively for Bigfork, rushing for 111 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries. Quarterback Anders Epperly was 11 for 17 passing for another 217 yards.
Bigfork’s job gets no easier this weekend, when the Vikings travel to Northern B champion Fairfield (10-0) on Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. with a spot in the state championship game on the line. The Eagles humbled Manhattan 34-6 in their quarterfinal matchup.