Belgrade's Easton Paige

Belgrade's Easton Paige runs the ball during the Panthers' 31-7 victory over Sidney on Aug. 24. Belgrade is 3-0 in its final year of competition at the Class A level. 

BILLINGS – Things are finally on the upswing for Culbertson football.

After two difficult years in 8-Man football since separating from Bainville, Culbertson is off to a 3-0 start, most recently defeating Scobey 26-24 last Friday. The Spartans were a playoff team last year, and ranked No. 9 in the 406mtsports.com rankings coming into the game.

Now, the Cowboys are ranked No. 10 this week, and looking to build on what’s been a long process since they became their own program in 2016.

“We knew this was going to be a huge test for us,” third-year head coach DJay Hauge said. “They are a very good team up there. We played with our hearts and executed well and we ended up walking away with the win.”

After co-oping in football with Bainville for decades, ithe Bulldogs decided they wanted to become their own program in the 6-Man ranks. That left Culbertson halved with numbers in the first year of Hauge’s tenure, and Culbertson lost every game it played. The change began in 2017 when Culbertson won three games but missed the playoffs.

Now, sporting a roster of just over 20, things are finally back on track.

“We kind of had to start from square one. We had a lot of younger freshman and sophomores and they’ve really come to mature and understand the game and what it takes to win,” Hauge said. “So it’s been all of the boys and girls that I’ve had on my team just coming together and understanding what it takes.

You read that right. Culbertson has one girl on its roster, sophomore Faith Bowland. Bowland is a backup quarterback and middle linebacker.

“She’s played with us ever since she was a sixth-grader I believe,” Hauge said. “She’s not afraid to stick her nose in there that’s for sure. She can go up against some of the toughest guys on the team, get knocked down, stand right back up and go at it again. It proves to these guys that they have to work just as hard as she does if they’re going to be able to do everything.”

Along with Bowland, Hauge said he has seven seniors and is led by running back Noah Nickoloff. According to Hauge, Nickoloff has seven touchdowns and over 400 yards rushing this year and plays middle linebacker for the Cowboys while also contributing with kicks, punts and is a return specialist, too. Junior Gabe Granada was another player Hauge pointed out as being a standout for Culbertson.

Now with a statement win over Scobey plus victories against Broadus and St. Labre, Culbertson will turn its attention to Lodge Grass on Friday. Those seniors saw what it was like to lose as underclassman. Now, they’re making the most of their opportunities.

“We can’t rest on anybody. We have to come out and give everybody our best effort,” Hauge said. “If we do take a break, I tell them we’re going to be right back where we were. So we have to make sure we come out every week ready to play and do things right.”

Belgrade preps for AA

Belgrade’s final season in Class A is off to a smooth start.

The Panthers are 3-0 to begin with wins over Sidney, Livingston and Miles City and ranked No. 3 in the 406mtsports.com football rankings in Class A.

It is the final time the Panthers will be ranked in that classification as next year they will officially make the leap to Class AA in all sports.

But for now, they’re making the most of this last year.

“The kids are performing well and performing at a high level. We’ve simplified things offensively and defensively, and the 3-0 start, I just hope that continues,” head coach Eric Kinnaman said.

No sport at Belgrade High School will go through a tougher transition when it jumps to Class AA next year than football.

A numbers game by trade, Belgrade’s football team will have to take on the likes of schools from Montana’s biggest cities, some sporting populations of more than 2,000 students. But Kinnaman believes that a successful season this year could help make that jump a little easier.

“For us to perform well is very important for the success of the program moving forward,” Kinnman said. “If we have an unsuccessful season this year I think the kids look at it as, ‘If we’re unsuccessful at Class A, how are we ever going to be successful in AA?’ I think this year holds a lot for us, not just for this year as our last year in Class A, but the success we hopefully will have in AA.”

Belgrade has 73 kids in the program, including 26 freshman and 11 seniors, led by do-all standout Easton Paige. Some AA programs have 70 freshmen alone. But Kinnaman, who is in his 12th year as Belgrade’s head coach, said occasionally Belgrade will have a down year in football which could affect numbers negatively. So his hope going forward is that they find consistent success so numbers continue to rise and stay at a healthy number so the Panthers can compete with their future AA rivals.

Belgrade will be the only the school to have competed at all four classifications when the time comes. Having won titles at the Class C and B levels, athletic director Rick Phillips has – jokingly – put the pressure on Kinnaman for this final Class A season.

“'We’ve won the football state championship in every single classification except A, and this is our last chance to do it, so no pressure,’” Kinnaman recalled with a laugh.

But Kinnaman has reached out to AA coaches and studied how they go about business with their programs and in turn his players have responded well. And after going 2-7 a year ago, Belgrade’s start is a step in the right direction before that changes comes around.

GR-W gets over the hump

Back in 2015, Grass Range-Winnett let a late lead against Bridger get away in TJ Smith’s first year as head coach.

On Saturday, the Rangers finally bested the Scouts, a team that has had a stranglehold on the 6-Man South the last two seasons. Grass Range-Winnett won 27-0, defeating a team that had had their number as of late.

Smith, in his fourth year as head coach, said every year his team would be “hyped up” to play against the Scouts, but it would result in “silly mistakes” on the field that cost the Rangers. This year was not much different, as the Rangers let a few scoring opportunities go leading to a 0-0 first half. They cleaned things up in the second, getting two touchdown runs from Zane Stahl and two more from Caleb Hess and Jacob Jessen. Stahl’s first score was a 70-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the second half to open the floodgates.

Smith said despite the mistakes from the team, he knew they’d be OK going into the second half because they were containing Bridger and remained in the game despite giving some points away.

“We’ve always had bad luck against Bridger but our boys came to play no doubt and so did Bridger,” Smith said.

“We don’t have a very emotional football team,” Smith added. “They’re not the type of kids to jump up and down and scream and holler. But this game I saw that. After that (first score) our kids we’re just excited. Hopping around, just feeding off of each other’s enthusiasm. They never gave up and never quit.”

Smith attributed that emotion to finally beating their division rival after so many frustrating losses. Now 4-0 with other wins over Plenty Coups, Denton-Geyser-Stanford and a forfeit win over Northern Cheyenne, Grass Range-Winnett jumped from No. 7 to No. 3 in the 406mtsports.com rankings and have firmly set themselves in the driver’s seat to get the No. 1 playoff seed from the 6-Man South. 

“I have to remind them that we were on the outside looking in to teams like Bridger and now we’re kind of on the inside looking out,” Smith said. “We have to stay focused. We have to keep that mentality of one game at a time. Monday we took it easy at practice and Tuesday we had one of the best practices of the year. So, I think they’re taking this momentum and emotions and doing what they need to be doing with them instead of having a letdown. They’re focusing on the next game. They’re excited and very optimistic.”

In terms of letdown, Smith points his players towards 2016, when Grass Range-Winnett hosted its first home playoff game in school history and made only its second playoff appearance in co-op history. They lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Bainville, and Smith felt his team spent all of their energy on a big win over rival Roy-Winifred midway through the regular season and simply went through the motions the rest of the way. So even though the win over Bridger on Saturday was big, his message to the team now is a simple one.

“It’s not over,” Smith said. “I keep reminding them about that year. We can’t have a letdown at all and I think they understand it. They’re starting to get on track and I think they finally realized that, hey, we have a lot of potential and we can do this as long as we keep our minds to it.”

Email Kyle Hansen at kyle.hansen@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @khansen406

Prep sports reporter at the Billings Gazette

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