2021 Flathead Valley Football Preview

After a year of delayed starts, fan restrictions and shortened schedules, Flathead Valley high schools are ready for normalcy this football season

By Micah Drew
Jake Rendina of the Glacier Wolfpack outruns the Flathead Braves defense for a touchdown at the annual crosstown football game in Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Oct. 16, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Football in the Flathead Valley is going to look almost normal this season, after last year’s COVID-19 restrictions for teams and fans changed the atmosphere of games. Teams will be traveling more and cross-town games should once again see stands at full capacity. 

All five programs — Glacier, Flathead, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Bigfork — will be breaking in new starters at key positions, and there will be electrifying storylines to follow across the valley. 

Two of the most exciting threads to follow this season come out of Class AA where the Glacier Wolfpack will boast arguably the state’s best offensive player taking the field for his final season. Across town, Flathead will be rebuilding its program with a new head coach and limitless potential.  

Class AA and A will kick off this week with non-conference games, and Class B teams will open their seasons Friday, Sept. 3. Games can be streamed live online with a subscription to the NFHS Network. Don’t forget to visit www.flatheadbeacon.com all season for updated scores, standings and stories from the gridiron.

Class AA

Flathead and Glacier football helmets
A Flathead Braves and a Glacier Wolfpack football helmet. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After last year’s decision for Class AA football to only play conference games, cross-divide competitions are back on the schedule this season, meaning more football, and more competitive football.

Last year, Glacier reached the quarterfinals before falling in overtime to Billings Senior, and the Wolfpack return a strong group of starters whose experience will be crucial in navigating a tough conference schedule. 

Glacier returns two all-conference selections in seniors Luke Bilau, tight end, and Griz-commit kicker/punter Patrick Rohrbach, but the star of the Wolfpack will once again be two-time all-state senior running back Jake Rendina. 

As a junior, Rendina went on a highlight-reel-worthy offensive tear, rushing for 1,402 yards and a state-leading 29 touchdowns, including a single game high of seven against Hellgate. Rendina returns as perhaps best offensive player in the state and is more fearsome than ever, as he won the powerlifting national championships over the summer. 

“Obviously a lot starts with Jake Rendina, and everybody knows about him, but our back seven on defense and our offense is full of playmaker kind of guys,” Glacier head coach Grady Bennett said. “For Jake, one of his strengths is he gets stronger every quarter — if you’ve got to tackle Jake Rendina in the fourth quarter, that’s a rough ask.”

Glacier running back Jake Rendina
Jake Rendina, football player for Glacier High School. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With the graduation of quarterback JT Allen, junior Gage Sliter will be stepping into the spotlight, a choice Bennett is excited about as someone who can make the right calls and move the Wolfpack in the right direction.  

Flathead High is once again in a year of transition. The Braves are coming off two low-win seasons under former head coach Matt Upham. The Braves set a high bar in 2018, when they came up just a few yards short of capturing the state championship, but the team hasn’t looked the same since, going 2-15 over the last two seasons. 

“Nobody likes to go 0-7. Nobody likes to lose a football game,” said new head coach Alex Cummings. “The biggest thing for me is rebuilding the culture and getting back to what our program is about.”

Cummings has been on staff for seven years, so he’s seen the Braves at their best and worst. Any wins would be big for Flathead, but Cummings thinks he has the making of a strong team across the board. 

Cummings has identified junior Jackson Walker, a first-year starter at quarterback, as a strong leader and smart player who is ready to direct a young offense. 

Look for returning starters Dylan Zink (DB), Caleb Riley (TE) and Kaden Henshaw (RB) to provide senior leadership on both sides of the line. 

The AA schools both open their seasons this week on Friday, with Flathead traveling to Billings to take on Skyview while Glacier will host Belgrade at Legends Stadium. 

Class A

Whitefish quarterback Fynn Ridgeway
Quarterback Fynn Ridgeway (18) of the Whitefish Bulldogs during a game against the Hamilton Broncs in Whitefish on Oct. 11, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana High School Association is bringing the postseason Class A tournament back up to 12 teams this season, after last season’s trimmed-down playoffs. This gives the western teams better odds of reaching the ever-competitive Class A tournament. 

In 2019, Columbia Falls didn’t earn a spot in the state tourney, but last season the Wildcats proved it was the only fluke in coach Jaxon Schweikert’s 25-year-long postseason record as they made it to the state quarterfinals. 

This year the Wildcats will be fielding a lineup full of underclassman but one Schweikert thinks can push even further through the state tournament. 

“I’ve been coaching for nearly 30 years and this is probably the youngest team I’ve ever had — it’s definitely the smallest I’ve ever had,” Schweikert said. “But we feel that while the youth could get to us, we might be that final four team again.”

Standing out among the youngsters will be senior all-state returnees Cade Morgan (WR) and Isaiah Roth (RB). 

Columbia Falls will start the season on Aug. 27 hosting Stevensville, who went 0-6 last year. 

“We have a schedule that favors us because it just builds all season,” Schweikert said, adding that it ensures everyone gets time on the field, a key component to training underclassmen. “A lot of guys that have played varsity ball but haven’t been as prominent will be front and center starting out this year. 

Whitefish will also open the season on Friday, traveling to Dillon to take on Beaverhead County, the No. 2 seed out of the west last season. 

The Bulldogs had an experienced squad in 2020 that finished conference play 3-2. This year the Bulldogs again bring experience back to the field, with two all-state returnees and three all-conference selections sticking around. 

Junior all-conference quarterback Fynn Ridgeway is back after two strong seasons at the helm. Ridgeway passed for 1,641 yards last year with 12 passing touchdowns, six rushing touchdowns and a 60.2% completion rate. 

Ridgeway will be working with senior wide receivers Jaxsen Schlauch and Bodie Smith to keep the Bulldogs moving fast, furious and forward. 

Bodie Smith (2) of the Whitefish Bulldogs leaps for a pass against two Hamilton Broncs defenders in Whitefish on Oct. 11, 2019. Hamilton beat Whitefish 41-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Libby Loggers graduated several key players, including speedy quarterback and cornerback Jay Beagle and running back Dawson Young, but several seniors will anchor the lines, including guard Tyler Michalkiewicz. Third-year starter defensive end Cy Stevenson, a starting safety since his freshman year, will anchor the defensive line.

In Polson, the Pirates have 11 seniors, including key wide receiver Colton Graham. Junior Jarrett Wilson is back for his third season as a big storyline in Montana football — last year he threw for 3,115 yards and 32 touchdowns, No. 1 in the state across all classifications.  

On Friday, Polson will host Butte Central and Libby will visit East Helena. 

Class B

Western B football will be as competitive as ever with perennial western conference powerhouses Lincoln County High School and Florence-Carlton looking to continue their state playoff appearance streak. 

“It makes it a lot of fun when every week you have to show off,” said Bigfork’s second year head coach Jim Benn. “Last year was a little overpowering, starting up with everything that was going on, but this year we’re way ahead of where we were last year.”

The Vikings are once again looking to take down their top competition, but will be without one of last year’s star athletes, as running back Cormac Benn, who topped the state lists in four categories, has matriculated to Carroll College. 

Last year the Vikings waffled between massively uneven victories and close losses. 

“We’re a more complete team this year,” Benn said. “Going in I wanted to make sure we were more well rounded and getting the ball in more hands.”

A veteran quarterback, senior Patrick Wallen, will offer the team a lot of experience on offense. Returning all-conference players Braeden Guse (OL), Levi Taylor (LB), Tre Rodriguez and Bryce Gilliard will complement him on the field.  

The Vikings will kick off their season against Cut Bank on Sept. 3. 

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