2023 Flathead Valley Football Preview

All five local schools kicked off their seasons last week to mixed results

By Micah Drew
Wolfpack players take the field before the crosstown game at Legends Stadium. Beacon file photo

There is nothing quite like the epic highs and lows of high school football, and the Flathead Valley schools have experienced their fair share of both in recent years. All five local schools face big questions this season. Will Bigfork continue its playoff success against Class A competition? Can Flathead win another football game this year? Can the Wildcats make the state final? Can a nationally ranked transfer QB be Glacier’s secret to success?

All teams kicked off their seasons over the weekend and the Flathead Valley saw three teams notch opening night wins, all blowouts. Don’t forget to visit www.flatheadbeacon.com/sports all season long for updated scores, standings and stories from the gridiron.

Bigfork coach Jim Benn wasn’t worried about moving his team to Class A this season. By his accounting, all the historically even-keeled Vikings need is to keep “doing football the way we’re doing football at Bigfork,” a strategy that earned the Vikings a title game berth in 2021.

“We can’t control how big we are, we can’t control who our competition is now, but we can control attitude, effort and enthusiasm,” Benn said.

Well, the Vikings brought all the attitude, effort and enthusiasm to the field on Friday and made their presence known in Class A by hammering Polson 55-20.

While Bigfork has been known more as a basketball school in recent years, Benn says the addition of each multi-sport athlete on the roster gives him additional layers of depth and dimension to work with on the gridiron. This year, quarterback Tristan Herd, receiver Elijah Thorness and running back Wyatt Johnson are bringing their multi-talented prowess to bear against a new slate of Class A rivals.

Against the Pirates, who are adapting to their first season in years without star QB Jarrett Wilson, Herd threw four touchdown passes to Thorness and Johnson rushed for 166 yards. The Vikings defense kept the Pirates to just three touchdowns.

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

Columbia Falls has emerged as the team to watch for Western Class A schools. Last year’s champions, Lewistown, had only one close game all season — their 14-6 quarterfinal victory over the Wildcats.

The Wildcats, under coach Jaxon Schweikert, returns most of its starting lineup, including all-state quarterback and linebacker — and the coach’s son — Cody Schweikert. Schweikert, a recent Montana Grizzlies-commit, combined for 33 total touchdowns offensively and was a force for the defense with 93 tackles last season.

Coach Schweikert has said the last two seasons have featured some of the youngest and physically smallest teams he’s coached in his dozen years at the school, but the squad has evolved into an older, more mature group of boys ready to rachet up the tempo on the field and make a run for the finals.

In the opening game against Frenchtown, the Wildcats rolled to an easy 42-12 win highlighted by an 85-yard kickoff return by Reggie Sapa. Schweikert was 15-22 for 222 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown to Jace Hill, who hauled in three passes for 93 yards.

Across the valley, Whitefish opened its season against Hamilton, last year’s No. 1 team in the West that sent the Bulldogs home in the state quarterfinals. Friday’s game was a rougher version of last year’s season-ender, as Hamilton crushed the Bulldogs 21-7.

The Bulldogs are rebuilding this year after losing several key seniors, including QB Fynn Ridgeway and all-around talent Ty Schwaiger, but second-year coach Brett Bollweg is excited about the new crop of younger players he has out this year.

“This is a really fun talented group of guys who are really willing to sacrifice for the bigger vision of the team,” he told the Beacon. “We’re going to keep growing as a team.”

This week, Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Whitefish will face Ronan, Browning and Eureka respectively.

Crosstown football on the new turf field at Legends Stadium. Beacon file photo

By some accounts, the first season under Flathead football coach Caleb Aaland was a resounding success — the Braves won a football game, the first victory in three seasons, and finished the season second from the bottom of the standings. Unfortunately, the 27-0 shutout of Billings Skyview in the first appearance on the gridiron was the highlight of Flathead’s season last year.

The good thing about Aaland’s second year in charge is there’s (almost) nowhere to go but up.Several close games by the Braves last year showed the team’s potential, and a full year and summer of building synergy with the new coaching staff and players should manifest on the field this fall.

It’ll take at least two weeks of football for the Braves to show their mettle, however. On Aug. 25, the Braves traveled to Great Falls to take on CMR and emerged with some scratches as the Rustlers won 33-0.Flathead will host Belgrade on Sept. 1, which could offer a chance for the Braves to get a win under their belts before the schedule begins to get tough, with Sentinel, Butte and Helena appearing later in the month.

Across town, Glacier notched a shutout against Great Falls at Legends Stadium, proving why they’re among the favorites in Class AA this year. Head coach Grady Bennett has been itching to return to the state final since the Wolfpack won the championship back in 2014. Seventeen starters are back for the Wolfpack this year, led by North Dakota State signee Henry Sellards, an all-state offensive tackle last year; Kash Goicoechea, an all-state safety; and edge rusher Isaac Keim. Both Goiceoechea and Keim are Montana Griz commits.

Following the graduation of QB Gage Sliter, now with the Griz, Coach Bennett might have been wondering about who would step up as the Wolfpack’s signal caller. That question was erased this summer when sophomore Jackson Presley announced a move from Los Angeles to Kalispell to play with the Wolfpack.

Presley already has scholarship offers from nearly a dozen NCAA Division I schools, including Oregon, Texas A&M and Florida State, for his collegiate debut in 2026. The 6-foot-2-inch, 195-pound sophomore has the “it factor,” according to Bennett, who speaks from nearly two decades of coaching experience.

It only took one game for Presley to show his prowess. Hosting Great Falls High School, the young quarterback was 19 for 26, with 255 yards on the game.

The Wolfpack scored on each of its first five offensive possessions including the first offensive snap — a trick play that saw Rhett Measure lob the ball 70 yards to Cohen Kastelitz for a touchdown 17 seconds into the game. 

Glacier will travel to Billings next this week to take on Senior before hosting Helena, last year’s No. 2 team in the West.