BILLINGS — The tears flowed as freely as the snow fell on the Flathead High School sideline.
Pouring from the faces of coaches, players and staff was the weight of 48 years of championship frustration, the weight of hundreds of hours spent training, conditioning and studying, of five years spent rebuilding a program and re-establishing an identity, of two days of travel through the vast Montana expanse, of a cherished grandfather still coaching from the great beyond and, most frustratingly of all, the weight of those last eight stinking yards. The eight stinking yards that kept the Flathead Braves from calling themselves state champions.
Billings West stonewalled Flathead on four straight plays from inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes to hold off a valiant Braves comeback and win the Class AA state football championship 20-14 at a snowy and cold Daylis Stadium on Friday night.
“I’m just sad that it’s all over,” Head Coach Kyle Samson said, his eyes still red nearly an hour after the final whistle sounded. “It’s just the finality of it, I guess, that’s the hardest thing. Knowing it’s the last time that we’ll be together.”
Trailing 20-14 midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like the Golden Bears were going to put the game away before Billings West was flagged for offensive pass interference in the Flathead end zone. On the next play, a third-and-21 from the 25-yard line, Brian Wells intercepted Josh Erbacher and Flathead’s dimming hopes of winning the school’s first state football title since 1970 suddenly burned more brightly.
It didn’t take long on the ensuing drive for the Braves to get their offense back in gear. Quarterback Jaden MacNeil hooked up with senior wideout Anthony Jones for a 31-yard completion to get the ball near midfield, and two plays later Blake Counts broke free and rumbled down the sideline to the Billings West 7-yard line, putting Flathead within an echo of the goal line, and a possible state championship, with less than four minutes to play.
But Flathead would not get much closer. Counts picked up two on his next run, but a pair negative rushes followed that, and a fourth down heave into the end zone fell incomplete. Billings West would pick up two first downs to run out the clock on the next possession.
“We were right there and, like I told them, it wasn’t for lack of effort,” Samson said. “They gave everything they had, they just didn’t quite get it done.”
Samson, whose grandfather is Bob Petrino, the Hall of Fame former coach at Carroll College who passed away earlier this year, wore a hat with ‘Grandpa’ written on it throughout the season, and he hugged his players, fellow coaches and family tightly after the game ended. Many Braves lingered on the field in stunned silence, overwhelmed by the moment, as the Bears (12-1) celebrated with their on-rushing fans on the other side of the 50-yard line.
The two teams had met during the regular season, a game that West won by starting quickly, building a 21-0 first-quarter lead en route to a 42-20 final. In the state championship game, it looked like things might be headed in the same direction after a short opening kickoff was bobbled and dropped by a sprinting Flathead returner, and the Bears recovered the fumble at Flathead’s 19-yard line. They capped that drive with a touchdown, then scored again after forcing a Braves punt to lead 14-0 just five minutes into the game.
Flathead (9-4) controlled most of the rest of the action. The Braves outgained West 285-264 in the game (the margin was 287-185 after the score was 14-0) and put together a number of long drives, although three of those drives — including the last one — saw Flathead come away empty after reaching the red zone.
The Braves did get on the board in the second quarter after Gannon Welder sacked Erbacher and jarred the ball loose, a fumble that was recovered by Tanner Russell. Three plays later, MacNeil ran seven yards to paydirt to pull Flathead within 14-7. West, however, responded immediately and took a 20-7 lead into halftime.
The second half was all Flathead, and most of it came on the ground. The Braves scored their second touchdown at the end of a marathon 22-play, 94-yard drive that took more than 10 minutes off the clock and featured 14 punishing Counts runs. That drive was nearly a copy of the game’s decisive last drive, though, as Flathead had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line before moving backwards. But on fourth-and-goal at the 7, MacNeil found Jones in the front corner of the end zone to make it a one-score game.
MacNeil, who played both quarterback and safety this season after spending the last two years exclusively as a defensive back, finished with more than 100 yards of offense in his final prep game. Jones caught four passes for 77 yards.
Counts, Flathead’s record-setting running back, was once again a human wrecking ball on Friday night, running fearlessly and ferociously, gobbling up 182 yards on 34 carries. He finishes his senior season with a school-record, and unofficial state-record, 2,572 yards on the ground.
The Braves were playing in the state championship game for the first time since 2000, and won two playoff games this year, the first two postseason wins of Samson’s young coaching career. Flathead upset undefeated top-seed Bozeman in the semifinals to reach the final game, only to fall achingly short.
“Saying goodbye to those seniors is tough,” Samson said. “They have nothing to hang their head about. They fought for every inch; for everything they did tonight. I love this team.”