BILLINGS — One by one, a slow trickle of Kalispell Glacier football players emerged from their somber locker room, still in uniform, seeking the comforting words and hugs from parents.
All the while, just down the hallway, the sounds of the Billings Senior fight song, “Hail to the Victors,” came billowing from the Broncs’ locker room.
Such is the juxtaposition of emotions in an important, tight game, and Saturday afternoon’s Class AA quarterfinal at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium was no exception.
Behind Jacksen Burckley’s 22-yard field goal in overtime — and a host of other big plays, of course — the third-ranked Broncs held off the Wolfpack 20-17 in the kind of game that’s all too rare in this round of the AA playoffs in recent years.
A road trip to top-ranked Missoula Sentinel awaits, but that seemed the furthest thing from the minds of the Broncs (7-1), who shared more spirited hugs and shoulder pad slaps in the fading sunlight at Daylis.
“It was a nail-biter for sure,” said Senior’s Peyton Morton, who bookended his afternoon with a sack on the first possession of the game and another in Glacier’s overtime possession. “There were a lot of unexpected things we weren’t planning for, but we held on. We had grit.”
It was a redemption of sorts for Burckley, who had a season’s full of ups and downs in this one afternoon. He caught four passes for 86 yards, and he was good on a 26-yard field goal (set up by his own tight-roping catch along the sidelines for a first down) that banged off an upright and went through for a 17-10 halftime lead.
But he also missed a 32-yarder right before halftime, and his muffed punt in the second quarter set the Wolfpack up with a short field. Though the Broncs held Glacier to a field goal to maintain the lead, 14-10, it was that sort of day for Burckley.
So, yeah, he and the other Broncs couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when Patrick Rohrbach’s 28-yard tying attempt in OT went wide, setting off a rush of running Broncs to celebrate.
“I just have to give credit to my teammates,” said Burckley, noting long-snapper Thomas Klepps and holder Michael Ohlin with his success on the decisive kick. “I was pretty down, but they lifted me up and helped me.”
The Wolfpack, the third seed from the West, made the 450-mile trek to Billings firmly convinced they could forge an upset of the East’s second-seeded team. But after giving up touchdown runs of 50 and 52 yards to Senior quarterback Junior Bergen in the first quarter, it seemed it might be a long day for the Wolfpack.
The defense adjusted to Bergen’s elusiveness, however, and didn’t allow another touchdown over the final three quarters.
“I’m proud of our defense, how they settled in,” Glacier coach Grady Bennett said as he stood outside his team’s locker room while dispensing hugs and backslaps to players. “And then offensively we were able to do enough to get the thing tied up and force it into overtime.
“That’s football. That’s sports. We just asked our guys to give their everything so that down the road they’ll look back and know they’ve given it their all. And they did that.”
Glacier quarterback JT Allen, who threw for 163 yards to nine receivers, hit Ethan Diede from nine yards out after Bergen’s first touchdown to tie the score 7-7. After Bergen scored again, Rohrbach made a 26-yard field goal to cut the Broncs’ lead down to 14-10.
When Glacier’s Jake Rendina, who rushed 24 times for 74 yards, plowed in from the 1 on the second play of the fourth quarter, the score was tied again 17-17.
Both defenses were strong from there. Bergen made a fourth-down interception and returned the ball to the Glacier 40 with just under three minutes to play, but the Wolfpack forced a turnover on downs.
Then, after Senior held again, Rohrbach boomed an 80-yard punt with only seconds to play, and the game soon went into overtime, where each team gets a possession from their opponent’s 10-yard line.
Both were held to field goal attempts, with Burckley and the Broncs coming out on top, ending the Wolfpack’s season at 6-3.
“I’ve said all year this team just really cares, they just care deeply about the team, the program, each other,” Bennett said. “You could see that out there and you can see it in here. It’s hard to say goodbye to them because I just love coaching this team. I just wanted another week or two with them.”
Bergen carried the ball 17 times for 159 yards, but 102 of those came on his two touchdown runs. Jacob Miller gained 89 yards on 21 carries. Bergen was 10 of 17 passing for 125 yards.
“Two teams going at it … just happy to be a part of it,” Senior coach Chris Murdock said. “It was a good test for our kids. I mean, they’re a good, tough football team. It wasn’t always pretty at times, but I’m proud of our kids for hanging with it for four quarters.
“Those were tough circumstances right there. I learned that our kids are resilient and they’re going to play hard for four quarters.”
And a bit more.