Long after the sun set on the last Wednesday of the football season, the Columbia Falls Wildcats were on their home turf running through drills under the stadium lights amid a November rainstorm. While the chilly night — barely warm enough to prevent the droplets from crystallizing — would send many teams indoors for practice, that wasn’t the case for this team.
These same boys spent nearly every night all summer on that football field, coach Jaxon Schweikert said, and there was no reason for them not to be out there on this night.
“We judge every single day by whether we did enough to deserve to win a football game,” Schweikert said after the team was finally dismissed to dry off. “We don’t want anybody to hand us anything.”
The effort put into the season by this roster of Wildcats — summer training, daily film meetings during lunch, practices before and after school — comes to a head on Saturday when the team travels to Dillon to challenge the Beavers for the Class A state championship.
The game against Dillon is a rematch of what’s become a fierce rivalry. The two teams faced off in the 2016 state final, with Dillon winning 34-17 for the program’s eighth crown of this century. The Wildcats won their only championship title the following year.
During the regular season the Wildcats lost two games early on, including a 22-19 loss to Dillon in Week 3. The game was the smallest margin the Beavers won by all season.
“They scored 14 points off of like 30 yards of offense,” Schweikert said. “That wasn’t Dillon beating our guys, that was our guys beating themselves.”
Some bad snaps, silly penalties, and other mistakes led to that loss, and a subsequent OT defeat by rival Whitefish. Since Week 4, however, the Cats have been rolling, scoring at least 41 points against their next five opponents, including a 42-0 rematch against the Bulldogs in the first round of the playoffs.
A 21-16 road win against top-ranked Billings Central and last week’s 29-7 semifinal victory against Corvallis in the Bitterroot proved the Wildcats can handle the stress of being on the road.
“We’re pretty salty defensively, and defense travels. It doesn’t matter weather, opponent, or distance — defense travels,” Schweikert said. “And then, of course, offensively we’ve got a bunch of smart, athletic kids and they make plays happen.”
Coach Schweikert isn’t one for deep thoughts or emotional soliloquys, but he does acknowledge that for more than two decades as a coach, this season is particularly poignant.
“I did notice from the get-go that I felt a little more attached to the guys this year,” he said. “Personally, I feel a lot of ownership over all of the kids. I’ve watched them since they were ball boys and learning how to shoot a basket. They’ve been a big part of my life for years now.”
Schweikert’s son, Cody, is a 6-foot-2 senior quarterback and linebacker committed to playing for the University of Montana next year. With Cody is a graduating class of athletes that Schweikert has coached across myriad sports starting from their elementary years. He’s essentially watched this team grow up, and now they get to go out on the pinnacle of high school athletics.
“Ever since we were little kids coming to these games excited to watch the team, we’ve been talking about what it would be like when we were finally in Wildcat gear, and what if we made it all the way to state,” senior Tristan Crane said. “It was always a ‘what if this happened,’ and now it’s reality.”
The reality is that, despite the regular season loss to Dillon, the Wildcats look especially good on paper going into Saturday’s matchup.
Cody Schweikert is the top Class A quarterback, and the most dynamic quarterback in the state regardless of class (some of his stats are surpassed only by the two Class AA quarterbacks playing in Friday’s championship game). His completion rate is nearly 80%, he’s thrown 22 touchdowns this season and rushed for another 19. As a linebacker, he’s laid out 110 tackles in 11 games.
Backing up Cody, the Wildcats have five senior receivers who have combined for 22 TDs, led by Jace Hill’s 10 scores. For the plays that Cody isn’t running himself to the endzone, five different backs have scored for the Cats giving the team a veritable arsenal of options in the air and on the ground.
“You know we weren’t all that talented my eighth grade and freshman year,” Cody said. “But we knew coming up that if we worked super hard, we could get where we wanted to now and we’ve done that. We’ve come up through the ashes, I guess, and now we’re the big guys on the block.”
The biggest challenge for the team on Saturday is going to be battling against a team playing on their home ground, Cody said. “It’s always hard to do that, but we’re going to execute our plays when we need to.”
“I think we both just want it really badly,” Crane added. “But I think we want it more, and we’re going to battle harder.”
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