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Football

2022 Flathead Valley High School Football Preview

Breaking a winning drought, aiming for playoff berths and preparing for a final season before jumping classifications: Local football teams are ready to hit the field.

By Micah Drew
Crosstown football on the new turf field at Legends Stadium on Sept. 22, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

There is nothing quite like the epic highs and lows of high school football, and the Flathead Valley schools have experienced both in recent years. There’s the title game appearance by Class B Bigfork last year — only the third in program history— that ended in defeat; the record-breaking performances by now-graduated Glacier star Jake Rendina; and a continued drought of wins by the Flathead Braves. 

Last weekend marked the start of a new season, however, and the local teams have their eyes set firmly on the goal line and will be striving for a fall of epic highs once again. 

Class AA and A kicked off over the weekend and the Flathead Valley saw three teams notch opening night wins including two blowouts. Class B Bigfork will take the field for the first time on Sept. 2. Don’t forget to visit www.flatheadbeacon.com all season long for updated scores, standings and stories from the gridiron.

A Flathead Braves football helmet. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Class AA

After two winless seasons under two different coaches, the bar for the Flathead Braves to be successful this year was a low one: win a football game. They took care of that on night one, shutting out Billings Skyview 27-0, to end a 17-game losing streak. 

The path to victory started in April, when newly appointed head coach Caleb Aland told the Braves he intended them to begin the 2022 season as the fittest, most football-ready team in the state. 

“There was a lot more structure and a higher demand with the guys over the summer,” Aland said. “We had 5 a.m. workouts, lots of conditioning and meetings and camps. We definitely ran off a lot of guys who weren’t ready for that level of commitment, but the core group we have are all about it.”

 With three head coaches in three years, the Braves could easily be still considered a team in transition, but Aland, who was on the coaching staff last year, says the team is starting from a whole new place, physically and mentally.

“There are a lot of seniors here who are hungry to leave Flathead better than they found it,” he said. 

Seniors Jackson Walker (QB), Trevor Burke (RB) and Connor Skalsky (K) showed their mettle on Friday with Walker throwing two TD passes, including one to Burke, and Skalsky making field goals of 31 and 25 yards. 

“We were ready to get the season started off right, but our guys won’t be satisfied with one win,” Aland said. “They’ll get that first taste of it and go from there.”

Not to be outdone, the crosstown rival Glacier Wolfpack steamrolled Belgrade in their own opening game 63-0. Last year, Glacier reached the Class AA semifinals before falling to the eventual champion Missoula Sentinel, and despite graduating 25 players, the Wolfpack is returning a strong group of starters this year whose experience will be crucial in navigating a tough conference schedule. 

Gage Sliter is back at quarterback, offering key stability for the offense. 

“If you bring your quarterback back, you’re in a better position than most teams,” coach Grady Bennett said. “He’s worked so hard to make himself more athletic, and that’s going to be a huge benefit to our offense.”

Sliter appeared a cool, collected veteran on Friday as he tossed a school-record seven touchdown passes — six in the first half alone — and finished 14-18 for 309 yards. 

Any thought that the loss of Jake Rendina would slow down the Wolfpack’s scoring blitz was put to rest as five separate players got the ball into the endzone, including Kaid Buls, Cohen Kasterlitz and Kobe Dorcheus. 

Bennett says the team has an unprecedented amount of depth on offense which will become crucial in the latter stages of the season as the Wolfpack eyes championship games.  

“One quality I’ve always loved about this team since we started the program is that we always seem to play our best ball at the end of the year,” Bennett said. “We just want to be at the best those last few games.”

If a 63-0 blowout is Glacier’s starting point, fans won’t want to miss them at their best in eight weeks’ time. 

Wolfpack players take the field before a game. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Class A

Columbia Falls Coach Jaxon Schweikert has only seen one season in 26 years where his team hasn’t made an appearance at the state tournament, and he doesn’t see this year as any different than the other 25. 

After fielding one of the youngest starting lineups ever last year, Schweikert’s confidence in his players has grown with their size and experience. 

“Experience really is king, and while we might still be considered a pretty young team, this year they’ve been there, done that,” he said. “These guys can do everything much faster than last year and we’re looking sharp from day one.”

With nearly the entire starting lineup back, the Wildcats will look to push far into the state tournament but are by no means waiting until then to show Class A what’s in store. Last week, the team won a commanding 35-7 victory over Stevensville. 

Quarterback Cody Schweikert threw three TD passes and ran for two more, belying a new level of athleticism for the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound junior. 

“He looks pretty dang dynamic throwing the ball, and has such a repeatable, accurate arm,” Coach Schweikert said. “He has a chance to be the best we’ve ever had at that position.”

To back him up, Cody will have nearly a dozen receivers that will rotate on the field, including Jace Hill, Jace Duval, Justin Windauer and Mark Robinson.

“These kids are exuding so much confidence this year,” Coach Schweikert said. 

If there’s one weakness he can identify, it’s in the depth of the offensive line, but with “the best football coaching staff in the state,” he sees no reason they won’t be ready to do their job. 

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

Whitefish traveled to Dillon last Friday to take on Beaverhead County but lost 26-9 in the first game under new head coach Brett Bollweg.

“We did a lot of things well, but we did shoot ourselves in the foot a bit, too, making some silly penalties,” Bollweg said. “That’s a silver lining because it’s things we can work on right now and grow on. Everyone on the team knows this is the stating point, not the ending point.”

Senior quarterback Fynn Ridgeway is back after three strong seasons at the helm. Ridgeway passed for 1,355 yards last year with 16 passing, five rushing touchdowns and a 52.3% completion rate. 

Ridgeway will be working with senior all-state running back Ty Schwaiger as well as all-state kicker Ryder Barinowski and guard Kai Nash, who provide key experience across the field. 

In Polson, senior Jarrett Wilson is back for his final season as a big storyline in Montana football — last year he threw for 3,081 yards and 48 touchdowns, No. 1 in the state across all classifications.  In the first game against Butte Central Catholic, Wilson shot straight to the top of the stat lists passing for 257 yards and four TDs. Expect Polson to have an exciting season on the back of Wilson’s precision aerial work. 

Polson Pirates quarterback Jarrett Wilson runs the ball the length of the field for a touchdown in Polson on Oct. 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Class B 

Before bumping up to Class A next year, the Bigfork Vikings will be looking for their swan song at the Class B level, to follow up on last year’s loss in the state title game. 

“I’ve been telling the kids it’s the last dance in this class, but at the same time, we’re just worried about today,” said third-year head coach Jim Benn. “At this point in my coaching career I try not to look too far ahead, but I’ve definitely mentioned to the younger kids to start paying attention to what Class A will look like.”

The Viking graduated most of their impressively massive offensive line from last season, as well as several all-state and all-conference players. 

Seniors Bryce Gilliard (TE), Isak Epperly (QB), Joseph Farrier (RB) and Nick Walker (WR) are returning to provide key leadership for the Vikings as they embark on a final quest to a Class B title.

The Bigfork Vikings’s sideline at the Class B football final against the Florence Falcons on Nov. 20, 2021. The Viking’s lost 42-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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