Sports

Lions Pride

Undefeated Eureka will play for a third state championship in the last four years on Saturday and look to join an exclusive club

There were days, including those when Trevor Utter was growing up in the Tobacco Valley and playing football for the hometown team, that the Eureka Lions had what he called “a moderately good football tradition.”

The Lions were always competitive, and they were regularly in the playoffs. And every now and then they would win a playoff game or two, including in 1990 when the boys from Lincoln County High School played in the Class B state championship game. But that was as far as anyone had ever gone.

That was before 2016, when Utter, the head coach, and the Lions won the Class B state championship on a game-winning Hail Mary, and by then the quaint expectation of moderately good football was starting to feel a little inadequate. Another championship followed in 2017 — this one a much less heart-stopping 47-7 blowout behind now University of Montana quarterback Garrett Graves — and two years later the Lions are back in the Class B state championship game after beating Red Lodge 39-35 on Nov. 16.

Eureka will travel to Manhattan for the state title game on Nov. 23 and with a win would become just the second Class B program to ever win three titles in four years, matching Baker in 2001, 2003 and 2004. Win or lose, the Lions have forever buried their past as a moderately good football team and instead become one of the best programs in the state of Montana.

The new tradition in Eureka has been built in part on this year’s senior class. While Graves is the individual headliner from the Lions’ four-year run of success, 2019 seniors Hank Dunn, Jake Kindel and Chet McCully have been contributors all four years. Dunn and Kindel started on defense in the 2016 state championship game as freshmen, and all three have been two-way starters since 2017.

The Eureka Lions celebrate their win against the Red Lodge Rams in the Class B semifinal at Lincoln County High School on Nov. 16, 2019. The Lions beat the Rams 39 to 35. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

This season, McCully has put together a monster final prep campaign. The 5-foot-11 senior has run for 1,690 yards and 22 touchdowns, including four games of over 200 yards. In the Lions’ first two playoff games, McCully ran for 331 (Nov. 2 vs. Baker) and 286 yards (Nov. 9 vs. Columbus) on just 31 total carries.

Last week against Red Lodge, however, McCully left the game just before halftime with an injury and had to watch his teammates try to pick up the slack. Kindel, who starts at fullback, also missed time in the semifinal with an injury, so that left most of the work to Dunn, the Eureka quarterback, and he delivered. Dunn completed 13 of 19 passes for 281 yards and three scores, and added 154 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, piloting the Lions to a win on a day filled with unprecedented adversity, injuries aside. Eureka allowed a long kickoff return for a touchdown early in the game and was uncharacteristically charitable defensively, allowing the most points in any game this season to the previously undefeated Rams.

Jake Kindel of the Eureka Lions runs the ball in the Class B semifinal against the Red Lodge Lions at Lincoln County High School on Nov. 16, 2019. The Lions beat the Rams 39 to 35. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Dunn, who will play baseball at Yakima Valley College next year, has posted his two best games of the year through the air in the last two weeks, piling up 274 yards and five scores against Columbus in the quarterfinals. Utter calls Dunn “a phenomenal kid” with a 4.0 grade point average who has earned all-state in football, wrestling and baseball during his high school career. Dunn has thrown for 1,814 yards and 23 touchdowns, and run for 817 yards and 11 more scores this season.

Kindel, the other senior who could start his third state championship game this week, is the Lions’ middle linebacker in addition to his fullback role on offense. Kindel has accounted for 112 tackles in Eureka’s 11 games, and had 10 last week despite his injury. Both Kindel and McCully were scheduled to be seen by doctors in the early part of this week, and as of Nov. 18 at least McCully’s status for the game was unknown.

Wide receiver Austin Sartori of the Eureka Lions makes a catch in the Class B semifinal against the Red Lodge Rams at Lincoln County High School on Nov. 16, 2019. The Lions beat the Rams 39 to 35. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Regardless of whether or not McCully can suit up, the Lions have proven they have the depth to withstand such a key injury, partly because of the commitment the last four years of success have instilled in Eureka’s young football players. The Lions have a powerful offensive and defensive line, molded in the weight room in the offseason, and an expectation that things like state championships are not outside the norm.

“It makes a difference,” Utter said. “And even being here again will make a difference with the young kids, who will say I want to be the next Hank Dunn, the next Chet McCully. They see the work they put in. Winning breeds winning and it’s a culture of we want to be here and we want to do that.”

The 11-0 Lions will face another test in the championship game against fellow unbeaten Manhattan. The Tigers beat defending state champion Fairfield on the road last week, 25-19, and will be at home against Eureka with kickoff scheduled for 1 p.m. Fans can watch the Class B state championship game via the NFHS Network. More information is available at www.nfhsnetwork.com.

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