Football in the Flathead Valley enjoyed a banner season in 2018, with all five local schools qualifying for their respective state playoffs, three reaching at least the semifinals, and one getting all the way to the state championship game. But the winds of change have blown through the region this season, and all five programs — Glacier, Flathead, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Bigfork — will be breaking in new starters at key positions, with the Braves and Vikings also incorporating new head coaches at the same time.
Change won’t only be found on the field, either. Class AA, the state’s largest classification, will split into Eastern and Western divisions this year, with Belgrade bumping up from Class A and playing in the seven-team Eastern Division, which will grow to eight in 2020 when Bozeman’s Gallatin High School opens its doors. Flathead and Glacier will both play in the eight-team Western Division along with the three Missoula schools, two Helena schools and Butte. The Wolfpack and Braves each start the season with two out-of-conference games before facing off against their divisional opponents, and all 15 schools in Class AA will reach the playoffs this year, with the Western Division champion getting a first-round bye.
The season opens on Friday, Aug. 30 with all five schools in action, and don’t forget to visit www.flatheadbeacon.com all season long for updated scores, standings and stories from the gridiron.
The Flathead Braves had a season for the ages in 2018, making a valiant run to the Class AA state championship game for the first time since 2000 and falling just yards short of bringing home the school’s first title since 1970. It was a heartbreaking ending to an otherwise jubilant season that saw Kyle Samson’s five-year rebuilding project reach its pinnacle thanks to a senior-laden roster.
This year, those seniors are gone and so is the coach who returned the Braves to prominence, having departed for the offensive coordinator job at Montana Tech, but Flathead is not a team that is starting over. Matt Upham is the new man in charge after spending four years as defensive coordinator, and he returns a unit that will be counted on heavily as the offense works to replace its quarterback, running back and top pass-catcher from a season ago. All three — Jaden MacNeil (QB), Blake Counts (RB) and Anthony Jones (WR) — followed Samson to Tech, and Counts in particular will be tough to replace after the bulldozing back ran for an all-class state-record 2,588 yards as a senior.
There’s a competition underway to replace both Counts and MacNeil, with Drew Harrison and Travis McCully likely to share the load early in the season at running back, and Cooper Smith and Charlie Hinchey battling for the quarterback job. The offensive line that paved the way for Counts last year brings back all-stater Max Anderson and Cole Dalager but must replace three other starters.
The entire linebacker core from a season ago — Garett Rieke, Paxton Boyce and Gatlin Bruner — returns to the fold to pace the defense, and the secondary returns all-state standout and state-champion sprinter Chance Sheldon-Allen alongside Tannen Beyl and Brian Wells.
Across town at Glacier, Wolfpack coach Grady Bennett is in the midst of a preseason quarterback competition for the first time since 2011. Two-year starter Evan Todd is gone, and senior Braedy Santens and junior J.T. Allen are vying to replace him (a third quarterback, Daniel Kernan, is battling an injury). Allen replaced an injured Todd in the third game of last season and performed admirably before going down with an injury of his own, while Santens, who Bennett called “one of the strongest kids on our team,” would give the Wolfpack a more physical rushing presence were he to win the job. No matter who is playing quarterback, they will have one of the state’s most dynamic weapons to get the ball to in Drew Deck, a University of Montana commit who can line up all over the field on offense.
The other big hole for the Wolfpack is at running back, where there’s a chance for a new name to be added to an illustrious list of rushers in recent years that includes Drew Turner, Thomas Trefney, Noah James, Logan Jones and last year’s all-state tailback, Preston Blain. There is competition at that position as well, with Alec Thomas, K.J. Johnson and Austin Blair all in the mix, along with sophomore Jake Rendina.
Glacier snuck into the playoffs last year at 5-5, and if the Wolfpack are to return to the postseason, it could be in large part because of the roster’s depth. Bennett says Glacier can go two to three players deep up and down the roster, including on both lines where nine or 10 different players could see time, including two-way starter Hank Nuce.
Columbia Falls has ruled the Northwest A conference the last three seasons, a stretch that includes back-to-back postseason runs to the state title game and a championship in 2017. Hamilton beat the Wildcats in the state semifinals last season, ending Columbia Falls’ hopes of a repeat title, and while the Wildcats also must work in a new quarterback and running back, there are still plenty of experienced pieces in place.
Returning all-state selection Taylor Gladeau, the reigning Class A heavyweight state champion on the wrestling mat, will anchor the offensive and defensive lines, and linebacker Brad Nieves and safety Brayden Stone were both all-state a year ago for a defense that allowed only one opponent, Hamilton, to score more than 22 points in a game.
Offense has never been a problem for the Wildcats in recent years — Columbia Falls averaged more than 48 points per game in 2018 — but gone are quarterback Drew Morgan and superstar running back Colten McPhee, who ran for over 2,000 yards and scored 38 total touchdowns as a senior. McPhee and Morgan accounted for more than 80 percent of the team’s rush attempts last year. Returners Jack Price and Mason Peters both saw time in mop-up duty at quarterback a season ago.
The Wildcats’ rival, Whitefish, enjoyed a bounce-back year in 2018, reaching the postseason for the first time since the Bulldogs won the 2015 state title. This year, Head Coach Chad Ross doesn’t return a single all-state performer but does have all-conference linebackers Logan Drown and Devin Beale back in the mix, along with two-way standout Josh Dudley.
Quarterback Mark Anderson has graduated along with leading rusher Jack Eisenbarth, but Chad Queen (QB) and Beale (RB) saw time at their respective positions a season ago. Dudley, the Bulldogs’ tight end, led the team with 34 receptions in 2018, and wide receiver Isaac Calaway hauled in 14 catches in seven games as a junior.
No team must replace as much as Bigfork. The Vikings have a new head coach in Patrick Munson, who takes over for the retiring Todd Emslie, and Munson steps into the job just as a prolific 11-member senior class has walked out the door.
The Vikings do have some returning experience up front on both lines and, just as importantly, impressive size for a small school. Munson said seven or eight players could rotate through the offensive and defensive lines.
Senior Kanin Lafontaine and sophomore Levi Taylor should be the primary ball carriers for the Vikings this year, and sophomore Patrick Wallen has won the starting quarterback job, taking over for the graduated Anders Epperly.
The Vikings were a mainstay in the Class B playoffs under Emslie, but this year could require at least a little early patience around Bigfork as the young, inexperienced roster gets its legs and incorporates a new system under their new coach.