Gridiron Gains

Five northwest Montana football teams played quarterfinal matchups this weekend but only Bigfork and Polson advanced to earn semifinal berths

By Micah Drew
Wyatt Herd of the Bigfork Vikings runs the ball against the Florence Falcons in the Class B football final on Nov. 20, 2021. The Vikings lost 42-0. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Fifty weeks ago, the Bigfork Vikings sat on a bus, returning home from Florence covered in mud, sweat and, in many cases, tears after losing the state championships 42-0. 

Now the team is just one game away from a repeat appearance in the Class B title game in Bigfork’s last season before moving up a classification. 

“These kids have busted their butts all season and all summer and have a great attitude. It’s great to see that pay off,” head coach Jim Benn said. “They’ve really just found ways to get wins even in tight situations, and they know it’s not going to get any easier from here.”

On Nov. 5, the Vikings easily put away their quarterfinal opponent, Glasgow, 52-12, though Benn believes they could have wrapped up the victory even sooner. This coming weekend they will face Loyola Sacred Heart, the school Benn coached at before taking over the Bigfork program in 2020. In October, Bigfork won the regular season matchup against the Rams 47-14.

“There’s a lot of kids on that team who are seniors now that I worked with as freshmen,” Benn said. “I think very highly of the coaching staff there, and they’ve got one of the better running backs in the state, but we’re going to prepare for that.”

If there’s one thing Benn is capable of, it’s to prepare his athletes for any curveballs thrown their way. His first season with the Vikings was the fall of 2020, when the threat of Covid-19 restrictions hung over the season, but under his guidance the team improved from a 3-6 record the previous year to make the state playoffs. 

Last year, despite losing some of the top players in Class B, the Vikings made it to the state final, only the third appearance in program history. On a 9-4 record, the Vikings put up a strong first-half fight against Florence before being overrun. 

“This group of kids fought, scratched and clawed their way to the title game,” Benn said after the state final. 

This year, the regular season rematch against Florence was an entirely different story. Instead of folding against a nigh-unstoppable offense, the Vikings kept Florence on the defensive, opening up a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and keeping the Falcons’ comeback to just three touchdowns — with two blocked extra points. In the final 40 seconds of the game Isak Epperly made an 11-yard touchdown, giving the Vikings a one-point lead, and an attempted field goal by Florence bounced off the crossbar. 

Bigfork is now the only undefeated team in Class B — Florence is 9-2— and on track to return to the state final. The Vikings aren’t scratching and clawing their way there, either; they’re marching forward with confidence and ease. 

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

“This is an interesting group of kids because lots of teams have real emotional swings when things go sideways, but this group is even-keeled,” Benn said. “They’re almost goofy. No matter what’s happening, they just seem to buckle down and things don’t bother them. They get better when things get tough.”

It helps that the team is full of dynamic players. Senior running back Joseph Farrier, an all-state sprinter on the track, has rushed for 851 yards this season and scored 15 touchdowns along the way. Wide-receiver Isak Epperly has averaged 40 receiving yards per game, adding seven touchdowns of his own. Quarterback Tristan Herd has exceeded 1,400 total yards, trailing only Florence’s QB. 

In only three games this season has the Vikings offense been held to less than 39 points — four times they put up more than 52. 

On the back of last year’s title appearance, and the swan-song nature of this last season in Class B, Benn said the athletes have embraced his philosophy of enjoying every moment on the field, whether in practice or in games. 

“The mantra of the season is ‘get to,’” Benn said. “We get to do this stuff, we don’t have to do it. There’s not a lot of pickup football opportunities after high school. When it’s over, it’s over, at least the way we’re doing football here at Bigfork. I want them to have fond memories and camaraderies from the greatest team.”

If Bigfork passes the Rams’ test this weekend, they’ll host either Florence or Jefferson in the final. 

“At this point, you can’t dramatically change, so you just add wrinkles and get ready for what you think the next team is going to do,” Benn said. “That’s the biggest thing, not overthinking things. One way or the other, someone’s season is going to end this week.”

Glacier Wolfpack quarterback Gage Sliter looks for a receiver in a game against the Flathead Braves at Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Oct. 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Three Flathead Valley teams did see their seasons end over the weekend as Glacier, Whitefish and Columbia Falls high schools all suffered quarter-final exits from the state tournament.

For Glacier, the exit was one round earlier than last year as the Wolfpack (7-4) fell 31-23 to the Bozeman Hawks. 

In just the first quarter the Hawks (8-2) forced three turnovers, scoring on each of them. The Bozeman defense was able to snuff out Glacier’s offensive power that has averaged 45.8 points throughout the season. 

Senior quarterback, Gage Sliter, threw multiple interceptions but began to rally in the fourth quarter with a 20-yard connection to Alex Hausmann and a handoff to Kash Goicoechea, both followed by two-point conversions. 

Sliter ends the season as the state’s leading passer with 3,175 yards through quarterfinals and his 63% completion rate is the best in Glacier’s program history. 

In Class A, both Whitefish and Columbia Falls advanced to the quarterfinal round of the state tournament after falling in playoff games in 2021. Both playing No. 1 seeds, the Bulldogs (7-3) fell to defending Class A champions Hamilton 34-20, while the Wildcats (7-4) lost 14-6 to Lewistown. 

Under first-year head coach Brett Bollweg, Whitefish had a strong regular season campaign until mid-October, when the Bulldogs recorded a close crosstown loss to Columbia Falls, followed by another close defeat at the hands of the Polson Pirates. 

In Saturday’s game down in the Bitterroot, Whitefish trailed 20-6 at the half before mounting a strong comeback on both sides of the line, to make it 26-20 in the fourth. 

Senior quarterback Finn Ridgeway ended a strong high school career as a top rushing quarterback with 17 touchdowns and 1,259 yards to his name. 

Across the valley, Columbia Falls’ signal caller Cody Schweikert topped the Class A passing list with 2,301 yards, but only 79 came in the final game of the season against Lewistown. He did score the Wildcats’ only points of the game with an 8-yard quarterback keeper. 

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

To the south, an undefeated Polson avenged last year’s semifinal loss to Laurel by taking a 14-7 victory in gale-force conditions. 

Senior quarterback Jarrett Wilson, one of the strongest all-around players in the state, capped a 95-yard drive in the second quarter with a pass to Jaren Keene to equalize on Laurel’s first quarter touchdown. It was only in the final minute of the game that Wilson was able to move the Pirates clear with an interception followed by a six-yard run into the endzone. 

Polson, now 9-0, will travel to undefeated Lewistown next weekend to make a run at a title game berth. 

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