BOZEMAN — Three interwoven journeys all came to a satisfying end. Bozeman High had waited long enough.
Twelve weeks for a chance to win a state championship with an undefeated season; 364 days for an opportunity to atone for last year’s title game loss; four years to get back to the top of Class AA after last winning in 2019.
There was uncertainty regarding when the Hawks would reach that point again after splitting with Gallatin High in 2020. Bozeman would have to build its program back up. The first two years had promising playoff berths but disappointing exits. Last season, the Hawks were three touchdowns away from the ending they wanted.
Finally, this year brought euphoria.
Bozeman won 35-27 over Kalispell Glacier on Friday evening at Van Winkle Stadium, claiming the program’s seventh state championship and fifth since 2010. The Hawks finished perfect at 12-0.
“I just want to be remembered as a team that was resilient and came back after the year we lost and we won the state championship,” said senior quarterback Kellen Harrison, who threw for four touchdowns and ran for another.
Of Harrison’s 19 completions in 24 attempts, the one that will be remembered the longest came with 1 minute, 49 seconds remaining in the game. Bozeman held a 28-27 lead and was driving, hoping for any kind of score for more breathing room. On third-and-24 from Glacier’s 27, Harrison rolled to his right and desperately heaved the ball toward the end zone. Tight end Quaid Ash, a fellow senior, came down with the pass for a touchdown that provided the final margin.
“I saw a bunch of red guys down there,” Harrison said. “I go, ‘I’ll just throw it down there and see what happens.’”
While under duress, it was an incredibly gutsy decision, and it paid off.
“There were people all around me. Kellen placed the ball perfectly in between them. He’s a hell of a quarterback,” Ash said. “I just grabbed it and held on for dear life — everything I had and people ripping at it, and I just gave everything I had to hold on to it. I don’t really know how I came up with it, but it was awesome.”
Ash was not done playing the hero, though. Glacier, led by heralded sophomore quarterback Jackson Presley, still had some time. Presley navigated the Wolfpack down to the Hawks’ 24-yard line. With 40 seconds remaining, the QB was pressured up the middle by Bozeman lineman Hudson Wiens and linebacker Brady Casagranda, and he threw toward the sideline. Nobody was there except for Ash.
“We emphasized a lot this week that that quarterback will make great plays happen. He’s great at keeping plays alive,” Ash said. “But our D-line, Brady, they’ve been doing a great job of getting through, and they got through on that play, and I kind of just saw him throw it up in the air and I knew that if I got that the game was over, so I just tracked it down and made a play on it.”
Ash finished his high school career with five tackles, the interception and two touchdowns in the biggest game of the season.
“I think sometimes he’s the overlooked guy for us,” Hawks head coach Levi Wesche said. “He’s in a great linebacking corps, and he’s a great linebacker, but you don’t hear as much about him. He’s an unbelievable tight end, but this year, we have so many weapons, he doesn’t get the publicity maybe that Luke (Smith) did last year at tight end. So I was so happy that he got to show what he’s really all about and the type of football player he is.”
Harrison, who found Ash for a 23-yard touchdown in the first quarter, was glad to see his friend have that success as well.
“He is such a stud,” Harrison said. “He’s such a hard worker, and I wouldn’t want that for anybody else. He is just so deserving of that.”
Glacier scored early in the final quarter on a 76-yard pass from Presley to Rhett Measure, but Bozeman’s Rocky Lencioni blocked the extra point to keep the Hawks’ lead at 28-27.
Bozeman got the ball back with 7:55 to play and used just over six minutes to find the end zone with Ash’s touchdown.
Strong running by running back Harley Bianchini and Harrison got the Hawks down near the red zone. On a fourth-and-3 play with under three minutes left, Harrison scrambled just far enough to keep the drive alive. His ridiculous completion to Ash in the end zone was his final pass of a brilliant season.
“He’s the spark plug for our offense. You only go as far as your quarterback will take you, and obviously he took us really far,” Wesche said of Harrison. “I think he’s an unbelievable football player. He’s elite. That’s all you can say about him.”
The first quarter saw Glacier (10-2) force a Bozeman punt on the opening drive and later score on a 10-yard rushing touchdown by Kash Goicoechea. The Hawks weren’t behind for long, getting into Wolfpack territory with a trio of nice passes from Harrison to Cordell Holzer and Lencioni. From there, Harrison rolled out to the left and then cut back up the field to the right for a rushing touchdown of 34 yards. Lencioni finished the game with six catches for 66 yards.
On the next drive, Presley was intercepted on a deep pass on third-and-14 by Harrison. Presley had only thrown two interceptions all season before Friday, when he matched that total.
Harrison found Ash for the first time on the ensuing drive for the Hawks’ first lead. Right before the quarter ended, Goicoechea scored on a 6-yard rush, and the teams were tied 14-14 through 12 minutes.
The second quarter featured significantly less scoring and almost no scoring at all. Bozeman only found the end zone with four seconds remaining in the half on a 19-yard pass from Harrison to Casagranda. That drive was kept alive by a pair of clutch catches by Kash Embry, one on third down and one on fourth. Embry finished with four catches for 46 yards.
Casagranda and Bianchini each had 43 rushing yards in the win. Harrison led all players with 85 yards on the ground to go with his 245 yards in the air. Bianchini led the team with eight tackles, and Casagranda was next with six. Junior Kaden Paea had five tackles and one of the team’s two sacks. Senior Malloy Mayer had the other sack and finished with three tackles.
“We knew we could do it, and it’s just an amazing feeling right now,” Casagranda said.
Glacier began the second half with a scoring drive that took nearly six minutes. It was capped by a 1-yard rush by Goicoechea on fourth down. Bozeman responded, though, with another touchdown, this time a 29-yard pass from Harrison to Holzer to make it 28-21. The Hawks led by that margin going to the fourth.
Glacier was making its fourth championship game appearance. After losing to Bozeman in 2013, the Wolfpack won in 2014 against Great Falls CMR and lost in 2016 to Billings Senior.
Glacier earned a return trip to the final by having the highest-scoring team in Class AA this season. The Wolfpack entered Friday having scored 459 points in the previous 11 games. The team’s only loss came by a mere one point (28-27) in Week 3 against Butte. Since then, Glacier won eight straight games coming into Friday.
“They were legit,” Harrison said.
Added Casagranda: “All credit to them. They played a great game. That was one of our closest games. That was the hardest game we played all year.”
For most of the last two months, that one-point loss looked like the smallest of blips in what was shaping up to be an otherwise dominant season. Bozeman added one last roadblock and proved to be plenty dominating itself.
“I think we’re an amazing team. I think we’re the best team in a long time,” said Holzer, who caught four passes for 59 yards. “But I think people know how much work we put in. I think that’s what they’ll remember of us — as the people who put in the work and did it.”
Bozeman was in position to win the championship last season but lost in the final to an undefeated Helena Capital team.
In a neat bit of symmetry, this year’s Hawks went undefeated themselves and beat Glacier for the championship. That’s similar to the 2013 title-winning team that also had a perfect season capped by a win over the Wolfpack just a year after losing in the finale.
The Hawks reached this year’s championship by dispatching Butte 31-7 in the quarterfinals and getting revenge against Capital 43-19 in the semifinals.
Early in the season, Bozeman’s defense was susceptible to explosive plays that led to long touchdowns. But the Hawks kicked that habit after beating Billings West to improve to 6-0. All the while, Bozeman had an offense that was more than capable of making up for the rare defensive miscue — it averaged 37.8 points per game.
The Hawks were truly challenged just three times earlier this season. In the opener, a 21-14 win against Helena High, the go-ahead touchdown came in the final minute. The next week, Bozeman trailed 15-8 in the second quarter before scoring 31 unanswered points to win at Butte. And in Week 5, Bozeman weathered five second-half lead changes against Gallatin before finally winning by a touchdown.
The Hawks entered Friday against Glacier battle-tested but also with a great deal of earned confidence. The Wolfpack had some explosive plays, but Bozeman’s offense answered as it always has.
As the winners, the Hawks get to write the history and decide how this team is remembered. It’s been a challenging four years since the last title, and finishing atop Class AA this soon was never guaranteed. Senior linebacker Austin Baller pointed to the culture of the team as a primary reason why the Hawks have ended up on top once again.
“I want to be remembered by how close we were and how we fought through adversity,” he said. “Our sophomore year, we went 5-5 and we were young. We had a lot of young guys, and I just want to be remembered by how close we were and how close this group of seniors is and how we embraced all the juniors that played a huge role in helping us this season as well.”
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