The return of prep athletics brought about a much-anticipated and long-awaited opportunity for players to take to the field once again, even with COVID-19 limitations.
In addition to the COVID-19 restrictions in place for all sports, football has a few additional parameters that will change the atmosphere of games. Participants on the sidelines will be limited to 60 people. Cheerleading is allowed with proper social distancing, but marching bands will not be allowed to play at halftime.
There will still be action on the gridiron, however, which coaches agree is something to be grateful for.
While it’s difficult to say how the season will play out amid the pandemic, local schools are looking to make strong statements this year. Class A and B have already started playing, and Class AA teams will open their seasons Friday, Sept. 11. Don’t forget to visit www.flatheadbeacon.com all season long for updated scores, standings and stories from the gridiron.
The decision for Class AA football to only play conference games removes some strong cross-divide games from the schedule, but the return of competition still provides plenty of challenges for local schools.
Last year, Glacier reached the quarterfinals and is favored to return to the state tournament again this year. The Wolfpack have a strong group of starters back this year whose experience will be crucial in navigating the conference schedule.
Glacier returns two all-state selections in tight end junior Luke Bilau, who had 41 catches last year, and running back junior Jake Rendina. Senior JT Allen is starting his second year at quarterback and is backed up by a slew of underclassman looking for his guidance. Last year Allen threw for 2,267 yards and 24 touchdowns, and will be one of the top quarterbacks in the state. Glacier will be a team to contend with in the west.
The Wolfpack will be looking for new leadership on the defensive line, however, after losing middle linebacker Hank Nuce, the most valuable defensive player in Western AA last year.
“One joy of coaching high school kids is every year you look at how you’re going to replace great talent,” Glacier head coach Grady Bennett said. “But there’s always a next group of kids to step up and shine, and this year is no different.”
Bennett will be looking to Benjamin Stotts and Rocco Beccari to step up in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Flathead High is in its second year of transition. The Braves are coming off a 2-8 season last year, the team’s first under head coach Matt Upham. The Braves set a high bar two years ago, in 2018, when they came up just a few yards short of capturing the state championship, and they’re looking to build their way back toward the top.
The Braves will be in the replacement business this year after losing a talented group of all-state and all-conference selection seniors. The departures of Paxton Boyce, Chance Sheldon-Allen and Tanner Russell leave gaps on the defensive line that need to be filled.
On the other side of the line, junior guard Logan Lang will be a strong presence for the Braves, and seniors Gabe Adams and Alec Thomas give the Braves the makings of a strong offense. Flathead will be filling some offensive holes as well, while breaking in a new signal caller this year in sophomore Jackson Walker.
The AA schools both scrimmage this week, with Glacier on Sept. 3 and Flathead on Sept. 4. Then they open their seasons Sept. 11, Glacier hosts Helena Capital and Flathead travels to Missoula to take on Sentinel.
It has never been easy to qualify for the Class A playoff bracket, but this year will be even more difficult, as the Montana High School Association voted to reduce the postseason Class A tournament from 12 teams to eight, due to COVID-19. The trimmed down postseason means two fewer playoff seeds up for grabs in Western AA, where 12 teams will battle for four spots.
Columbia Falls didn’t earn a spot in the state tourney last season, but it was just two years ago that the Wildcats were in the semifinals and three years ago that they took home the state trophy. Their 2-7 record in 2019 was a far cry from their championship run in 2017, but it looks like the Wildcats may have turned a corner.
Columbia Falls started the season on Aug. 28 with a dominating win over Polson. The Wildcats put up 34 unanswered points in the second half to win 48-28, looking like a new team from last year.
Coach Jaxon Schweikert, in his ninth year at the helm for the Wildcats, looks to keep the momentum going all season. After a slew of injuries last year forced the team to bring on an inexperienced crop of players, this year’s team should have more experience to perform under pressure. Quarterback Mason Peters will have strong help on offense with junior Isaiah Roth and senior Taylor Bryan.
Whitefish also opened the season on Friday, falling to Libby 21-10. The Bulldogs played the Loggers last year in the playoffs, taking a 49-28 loss.
This year the Bulldogs look to make it to the state tournament on the strength of an experienced returning squad.
“I think we’re solid on the lines, as good as we’ve ever been with depth,” head coach Chad Ross said. “We’re bringing all the receivers back and that will make up for our graduated losses.”
Cameron Ross and Body Wold will anchor lines that Ross believes to be rock solid. Sophomore Fynn Ridgeway returns as quarterback, with a strong freshman campaign under his belt. Ridgeway passed for 1,148 yards last year with seven touchdowns.
The offense will be further bolstered by running back Jack Alton, who had three strong starts last season.
The Libby Loggers graduated several key players but return seniors Owen Wilkins and David Patterson on the line, along with senior running back Dawson Young. Sophomore Cy Stevenson, a starting safety as a freshman, will step up to anchor the defensive line.
In Polson, the Pirates return almost their entire starting lineup, including sophomore Jarrett Wilson at quarterback. Junior wide receiver Colton Graham will also be a strong presence.
On Sept. 4, Whitefish will travel to Polson, while Columbia Falls hosts Ronan and Libby hosts Browning.
Western B football will be as competitive as ever. The Lincoln County High School (Eureka) Lions have won three of the last four state titles, and it will be hard to slow them down again this year.
But Bigfork will be trying to do just that.
The Vikings are breaking in new head coach Jim Benn, but he is far from a newcomer to Montana’s prep football scene. Benn coached at five different high schools across the state before bringing his coaching pedigree to Bigfork. The Vikings made the state playoffs last year and narrowly lost to semifinalist Red Lodge. Benn watched the Vikings in that game and knows he has a young but hungry team on his hands.
That hunger was visible in Friday’s opening game when the Vikings rolled over Townsend, making a statement with a 57-20 victory.
The Vikings return a veteran quarterback, junior Patrick Wallen, to complement the Vikings’ strong running game. Against Townsend last week, Bigfork put up 468 rushing yards.
Newcomer senior Cormac Benn started his tenure with the Vikings with a stellar performance, rushing for 189 yards. He will be a powerhouse all season along with running back Levi Taylor and defensive standout George Bucklin.
The Vikings will be back in action at home this week hosting Cut Bank.