Mission (Almost) Accomplished

Flathead upset Bozeman to reach the Class AA state title game for the first time since 2000, but the Braves aren’t satisfied just yet

By Andy Viano
Jaden MacNeil rushes past a Billings West defender. Billings West defeated Flathead 42-20 at Legends Stadium on Sept. 7, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In an era when likes are counted like currency and life’s biggest moments are shared by shouting them from the metaphorical rooftops across our social networks, we have become more skilled at tabulating, analyzing and comparing the impacts of our actions.

Announce you’re having a baby and watch the likes and hearts roll in by the hundreds, but announce you just bought a new pair of sweatpants and aside from a smart-aleck friend and a courtesy like from your mom, prepare for nothing but electronic tumbleweed drifting through your feed.

In the sports world, a similar paradigm has emerged. Judge the impact of your big win not by whether or not the president is on the phone for you in the locker room, but on how many messages, and from whom, are waiting on your cell phone.

So, coach Kyle Samson, what was on your phone after you led Flathead High School to an upset 21-17 win in Bozeman on Nov. 9 against the previously undefeated Hawks, sending the Braves to the Class AA state championship game for the first time in 18 years?

“I had 98 text messages,” Samson said on Monday, still cheery more than 48 hours after the win. “A lot of alumni have reached out, even some guys that I have never met. I have had three or four guys that played on the last (title-winning) team in 1970 that have congratulated us. Brock (Osweiler) called us, and Lex (Hilliard) … that was pretty cool.”

But even as Samson and his players bask in the afterglow of the school’s biggest win in decades, and by far the biggest win of Samson’s coaching career, their focus has shifted to the next task at hand: traveling across the state to tangle with Billings West, finding a way to grind out another victory, and making the long drive home that night celebrating a state championship.

Do that and there will be a heck of a lot more than 98 messages to answer.

Chance Sheldon-Allen breaks away from Billings West defenders during the Bears’ 42-20 win over Flathead at Legends Stadium on Sept. 7. The two teams will meet again on Nov. 16, in Billings, with the Class AA state championship on the line. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

That the Flathead Braves are having success on the football field is not terribly surprising, particularly to those who have been observing the program closely since Samson took over in 2014. The former state title-winning Helena Capital quarterback has changed the team and culture dramatically, both with his irrepressible enthusiasm and consistent focus on strength training, and he’s had Flathead in the playoffs three times in five years, including first-round home games in 2017 and 2018.

Against Bozeman, however, it appeared that Flathead was about to run into its ceiling. The Braves were a predictable 7-3 during the regular season, winning every game against teams seeded below them at the end of the year and dropping all three games against the state’s top three teams (Bozeman, Billings West and Helena). The Hawks ran over Flathead 49-34 on Sept. 28 and swept through the regular season undefeated, averaging nearly 50 points per game in the process.

Samson, though, felt good about his team’s chances in Bozeman this time around, especially after the Braves took care of business and routed two-time defending state champion Billings Senior 52-35 in the first round of this year’s playoffs. The Braves’ coach looked back at that first game against the Hawks and saw a team that, but for a shaky start, played right with the state’s top regular-season team.

Friday night in Bozeman, at least on the scoreboard, it looked like the Braves were starting slow once again. The Hawks jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead but Samson was impressed early with the way his team, particularly his defense, was holding up. Flathead then answered Bozeman’s touchdown with a scoring drive of their own, capped by a Blake Counts two-yard run early in the second quarter.

Blake Counts looks for an open lane. Billings West defeated Flathead 42-20 at Legends Stadium on Sept. 7, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“I thought we got out to a pretty good start,” Samson said. “We moved the ball and our kids believed.  Going into halftime only down 10-7, we felt like we’ve been a pretty good second-half team all year.”

Immediately after the break, Flathead took the ensuing kickoff and drove the length of the field, taking the lead for the first time when quarterback Jaden MacNeil ran it in from seven yards away. Bozeman would retake the lead in the fourth quarter, but once again Flathead answered on the next possession and jumped in front for good when MacNeil hit Anthony Jones in the end zone from nine yards out. The Hawks offense had another chance late, but the Braves made a critical fourth down stop — one of two key stops deep in Flathead territory — and the offense was able to salt the game away.

MacNeil, the first-year Flathead quarterback who was a full-time safety before this season, continued his late-season push with another terrific performance, primarily with his legs. The under-sized Braves signal-caller attempted only seven passes in the game but ran for 117 yards on 12 carries, something he’s started to do with more regularity as he’s grown healthier and more comfortable in the offense.

“We’ve changed our schemes a little bit and (MacNeil) does a great job of reading our option package,” Samson said. “Obviously teams are focused on Blake (Counts) and they do a great job complementing each other. (MacNeil)’s really upped his game in the playoffs and that’s the type of competitor he is. He’s playing with a ton of confidence right now.”

Counts, for his part, had a monster game of his own against the Hawks, rushing 33 times for 228 yards. The senior running back has obliterated former NFL rusher Lex Hilliard’s school record this season and now has 2,390 yards on the ground this year, one of the highest totals in Montana prep football history.

This week, when the Braves go on the road to face Billings West, Counts and MacNeil figure to once again be the focal points of the offense. In two playoff wins, the duo has combined for 851 yards on the ground, representing nearly 84 percent of Flathead’s total offense.

Flathead’s Blake Counts, left, and Gunnar Landrum celebrate a touchdown in the first half. Billings West defeated Flathead 42-20 at Legends Stadium on Sept. 7, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The first time Flathead and West played, a 42-20 win for the Golden Bears at Legends Stadium on Sept. 7, Counts and MacNeil were both over 100 yards rushing. But in that game, like the Bozeman game during the regular season, the Braves got off to a terrible start, piling up special teams gaffes while digging a 21-0 hole after one quarter. The rest of the way, however, the two teams were virtually even.

“We were way down before we even knew what we were doing,” Samson said of that first meeting with West. “We feel like we’re a better team than we were then, and obviously they are too, but after we settled down we played them pretty good.”

West (11-1) lost only to Bozeman during the regular season and has won 10 straight games since then. The Bears whipped third-seeded Helena 34-0 in last week’s state semifinals and are seeking their first state championship since 2005.

Flathead’s last title came just a few years earlier. The Braves were declared state champions after a 9-0-1 season in 1970, when no playoffs were contested, and the last time Flathead celebrated a state championship with a win on the field was all the way back in 1959.

Flathead returned to the state championship game in 1980 but would not be back again until the 2000 season. The Braves lost five times that year before going on an impressive playoff run until Helena Capital, Samson’s alma mater, flattened the Braves 35-6 in the final round.

Capital was the king of Class AA football in those days, and would bring home another title just two years later behind quarterback Kyle Samson, playing for his father, Mark, then the Bruins head coach.

Mark was among the dozens who reached out to Kyle after his son’s big win last week, a group that included a number of other members of the coaching fraternity who were offering congratulations and words of wisdom. The younger Samson said he will heed some of that advice, and draw on his own experience playing in three state championship games, to prepare the Braves for an unfamiliar scene Friday.

“We’re trying to keep it the same this week, but at the same time the kids aren’t dumb,” Samson said. “It’s a huge game this week … we just want to embrace it and enjoy it. I want our kids to have fun this week, they’ve really earned the right to do that.”

The state championship game is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. at Daylis Stadium in Billings on Nov. 16. The action will be carried live on KGEZ 600 AM in Kalispell, and a pay-per-view video feed will also be available at www.nfhsnetwork.com.

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