The Next Generation

One year after a banner season for Flathead Valley prep football, a crop of gifted underclassmen are making an impact and setting the stage for years to come

By Andy Viano
Quarterback Fynn Ridgeway (18) of the Whitefish Bulldogs winds up for a pass during a game against the Hamilton Broncs in Whitefish on Oct. 11, 2019. Hamilton beat Whitefish 41-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The rosters of the Flathead Valley’s five prep football teams were full of holes when the class of 2018-19 reached graduation day. The 2018 season saw Glacier, Flathead, Whitefish, Bigfork and Columbia Falls all make playoff runs on the backs of senior stars, and as the 2019 season opened, question marks at marquee positions were everywhere.

But openings also create opportunity, and filling the spaces left behind is a new generation of gridiron stars who have taken their place atop the depth chart. Freshmen and sophomores occupy glamour positions at several schools, and with the season more than halfway done, those underclassmen are trying to steer their teams back to the playoffs and begin writing their own legacy.

Perhaps no team better exemplifies the mass roster turnover than Bigfork, where first-year coach Patrick Munson inherited a roster that lost 11 seniors, nearly all starters, many on both sides of the ball. The Vikings reached the Class B semifinals last season, but Bigfork started this year 1-2, including a blowout 31-0 loss to Florence-Carlton on Sept. 20. One week later, however, the Vikes hung tough with Missoula Loyola in a 21-11 loss, and the next two weeks have been lopsided Bigfork wins over Deer Lodge (36-12) and Anaconda (54-6).

The Vikings’ top passer and rusher are both sophomores, led by quarterback Patrick Wallen, who had far-and-away his two best games of the season in the last two weeks. Wallen threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns against the Wardens, and followed that up with 141 yards through the air and a career-high three scores versus the Copperheads. Running back Levi Taylor broke 100 yards on the ground for the first time against Deer Lodge, on just 15 carries, and was Wallen’s favorite target against Anaconda, catching six passes for 96 yards and a touchdown.

A few miles north in Kalispell, another sophomore running back is making a name for himself at a program that has become synonymous with standout play at the position. Glacier’s recent running back legacy includes college signees Logan Jones (Montana State), Noah James (Montana State), Thomas Trefney (Carroll) and Drew Turner (Montana), and last year’s starting tailback, Preston Blain, ran for more than 1,600 yards and was named all-state at two positions.

Next in line is Jake Rendina, a hard-running sophomore who has ripped off 742 yards on the ground in six games this season, including 117, albeit in a losing effort, against Helena High on Oct. 11. Classmates Luke Bilau (tight end) and Patrick Rohrbach (kicker) have also been major contributors, though their coach, Grady Bennett, said the decision to hand underclassmen so much responsibility against the state’s biggest schools and toughest teams is not one he makes lightly.

“Really, our philosophy is we don’t want to play sophomores,” Bennett said. “We try to be very careful and very, very sure that he’s ready because sometimes you can do damage to a kid who is not ready. But in these guys’ situation, their opportunity came and they took advantage of it. It gives other kids hope that, ‘If I can be ready, I might be able to seize an opportunity.’”

The responsibility for running the ball in Whitefish is firmly in the hands of an upperclassman and one of the state’s leading rushers, senior Devin Beale, but it’s the player handing Beale the ball who has raised eyebrows. Fynn Ridgeway has played from the first game this year as a freshman and has so far led the Bulldogs to a 5-2 record, the best of any valley team. Ridgeway put together his two best games in wins against Ronan and Corvallis on back-to-back weeks, racking up 309 passing yards in a 31-7 Whitefish victory over the Blue Devils on Oct. 4. Two of Ridgeway’s top targets are underclassmen, too, with sophomores Bodie Smith and Jaxsen Schlauch combining for 26 catches through the first six games.

Down the road in Columbia Falls, the Wildcats have their own impressive young signal-caller in sophomore Mason Peters. In his team’s 49-7 win against Corvallis on Oct. 11, Peters threw for 276 yards and three first-half scores, helping the Wildcats find the win column for just the second time this season. And while Columbia Falls finds itself on the outside of the playoffs through seven weeks, the story there, like in the rest of the valley, is that the future appears to be very bright.

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