BILLINGS — Don't blink.
That is the motto Billings Senior will enter its 2017 football campaign with as the Broncs look to defend their Class AA state championship in the upcoming months.
Friday was the official beginning of the Broncs defense of that title as coach Chris Murdock and Co. got to work at Wendy's Field at Daylis Stadium bright and early. Football, along with most fall high school sports in Billings and around the state, got practices in full swing across Montana on Friday.
For the Broncs, it's the first time in 37 years they've kicked off a practice schedule as the defending champions.
"It's kind of exciting because you know there's a lot to look forward to because we have another chance to win it again," senior Nolan Askelson said. "As a senior, and a leader, we just have to try and keep everyone focused. Everyone thinks last year we kind of just walked through it to state but it wasn't like that. We worked hard every day."
Senior graduated 22 seniors from last year's 13-0 team, with plenty of all-state talent, and starters, now gone. That includes quarterback and Gatorade Montana Football Player of the Year Nate Dick (University of Montana) and Class AA defensive MVP Keaton Anderson (Montana State). The Broncs had 10 players make first team all-state in 2016, with lineman Luke Poetzl making first team on the offensive and defensive line while Gabe Sulser was named all-state at three positions in receiver, corner, and kick returner.
Sulser is back, having committed to play football for the Griz back in July. Along with him is Askelson, who in April made his commitment to the Bobcats. Both headline a solid group of returners in the skills positions department which also includes senior receivers Colton Eliason, Carter Garsjo, and Ben LaBeau. On the defensive side of the ball, Sulser and Askelson will be joined by fellow senior leader and linebacker Blake Allred. Allred made arguably the play of the game in last year's title game, returning an interception for a touchdown just before halftime to swing momentum towards the Broncs en route to a 33-21 victory over Kalispell Glacier.
Allred said the team's speed will be similar to what they had last year, noting that having played in the last two state championships will help this younger team going forward with all of the extra practices the team went through in the postseason.
"It's kind of a surreal feeling (being a team leader), because looking back four years ago, I'm right here like these guys, screwing around," Allred said as he gestured toward some freshman football players playing pitch-and-catch. "It's going to be a good year.
"I looked up to Ryan Dick and Jake Clark when I was a freshman. They were the middle linebackers so I'm taking what they gave me and bringing it to these guys now."
The biggest question for the Broncs is who will play quarterback, as Dick had been the starter the last three seasons. Murdock said a decision hasn't been made, but he's weighing three options at that position. Askelson, who is a returning all-state linebacker and was the team's starting running back a year ago, was plugged in at quarterback in certain situations and serves as a viable option. Cade Torgerson, a senior who transferred from Shepherd halfway through last school year, is in the mix as well as junior Matt Plasterer, who was Dick's primary backup last season. All three donned green practice quarterback jerseys on Friday.
The Broncs also face a strong turnover on the offensive and defensive line, positions that Askelson said plenty of younger players have a chance to step up into more playing time. Other key returners noted are senior Micah Ans (safety), senior Marcos Mota (lineman) and juniors Gunner Hegg (runningback/linebacker) and Max Evenson (receiver/linebacker). Junior Garrison Poetzl (lineman) is another key returner, having started all of last season as a sophomore for the Broncs.
"I think our expectations are really high," Sulser said. "It will be fun and a challenge for sure, but the expectations are for sure there. I think people are going to be surprised with the depth we actually had last year. There's a lot of really good, talented players that didn't necessarily get their chance because there was some really talented kids in front of them. I think people are going to be surprised to see some young guys stepping up for the first time."
Sulser said the team has been fueling itself on the doubt of others and using that as inspiration for once the season gets started.
"It's a year where a lot of good players left," Sulser said. "It's really anyone's game this year and it's a matter of who wins in August and who won in the summer and who continues to get better as the year goes on."
Last year the Broncs entered practice as the runners-up. Askelson said he's noticed a difference in the start of this year's practices as opposed to last year.
"You kind of know that everyone around the state is just aiming for you," Askelson said. "Every day they're probably saying something like, 'We want Senior.' We have to show that we're still on top and never fell."
The Broncs will open up on the road at Glacier on Aug. 25 in a rematch of last year's title game. Billings West will open up at Missoula Big Sky and Billings Skyview will host Missoula Sentinel. Billings Central will begin at Miles City and Laurel will hit the road against Lewistown.
And as for "don't blink," Murdock's message is clear.
"One of our main sayings is this needs to be fun, you need to enjoy this," Murdock said. "Don't get caught up in thinking about getting to the next game. Just focus on making today the best day you can possibly make it."