BILLINGS – Laurel needed a statement victory.
After dropping a close one to Miles City in Week 2, the Locomotives, a team that returned almost its entire team from a 7-3 campaign a year ago, were woken up, so to speak. Since, they’ve won three straight to improve to 4-1, most recently defeating Belgrade 29-14 to hand the Panthers their first loss of the season.
“Our kids showed up and they played at a high level for the whole game,” Laurel coach Mike Ludwig said. “We’ve talked about that kind of all season long. We’ve had moments that we’ve played really well and moments that we’ve played kind of bad. So we talked about how important it was to play well consistently and our kids did that.”
Laurel, now ranked No. 5 in the 406mtsports.com high school football rankings, only graduated three seniors from last year’s team, so the expectations coming into this year were that the Locomotives would be able to pick up where they left off and then some.
“We’ve got a talented senior class,” Ludwig said. “We were expecting big things coming into this season. We weren’t surprised with the win against Belgrade. We know, and our players know, that we’ve got a good football team. They’ve just had to learn some lessons the hard way. The Miles City game was one of them.
“I’m hoping this win on Friday opened their eyes a little bit and they figured out that if we play hard and hustle and are disciplined, we’re pretty dang good.”
Ludwig said the team needed to learn that it can’t just show up and expect to win and that they would have to work for it. Ludwig’s favorite phrase is what he calls “the good F word” which is “finish.” Cliché as it sounds, the message seems to have struck a chord with the players. Laurel opened the year with a 38-12 win over Lewistown, the Golden Eagles' only loss of the year. Then came the 21-20 loss to Miles City. But the Locomotives have put that defeat in the past and won three straight against Havre (49-35), Livingston (38-6) and Belgrade. Ludwig said that he started to see his player’s truly click against Livingston.
Next, they hit the road to Glendive (2-3), a team they will be looking for revenge against. In last year’s opening playoff round, the Red Devils defeated the Locomotives 28-20 for their first postseason victory since 1995. The loss remains fresh on the player’s minds, and is a motivator going forward.
Among Laurel’s leaders, senior second-year quarterback Gage Hull has stood out, as has senior receiver and defensive back Gaje Leischner and senior receiver and linebacker Logan Kennedy. Senior left tackle and linebacker Kanyin Moran, senior two-way lineman Ely Kraft, senior cornerback Chris Abell, senior running back and linebacker Noah Gunther and junior running backs Ethan Renner and Cameron Younger and junior receiver Keagan Campbell have also helped lead the way for the Locomotives.
“The biggest thing I told them was to build on that win against Belgrade,” Ludwig said. “I like this crew. Moving forward, if we stick together and we just keep getting better and they keep playing hard like they did on Friday, I think we can win quite a few football games finishing up the season.”
Fairview gears up for Culbertson
Levi Seitz doesn’t have to sugarcoat it for his team. Friday’s game is a big one.
Why? His third-ranked Fairview Warriors (5-0) will host No. 9 Culbertson (5-0) in a battle of the 8-Man East’s only unbeaten teams.
The win could go a long way, especially for Fairview. Fairview has already defeated Circle (4-1), Scobey (3-2) and Broadus (2-3), the three teams that rank Nos. 3-5 respectively in the conference. So if the Warriors win on Friday, they could be well on their way to a No. 1 seed in the postseason, which will give them home-field advantage in the first two games.
They've weathered the storm so far and Seitz feels his team is ready to start taking off.
“I thought we did all right coming out in the first week but we’ve improved throughout the year,” Seitz said. “Last week against Scobey I think we played our best defensive game all year. I’m pretty encouraged by our defense and how far they’ve come from the beginning of the year.
“I think the first couple of weeks was just kind of getting acclimated to their new spots and new responsibilities. Really, it just all comes down to tackling and I think our tackling has gotten a lot better.”
Seitz says he sees a lot of similarities between Circle and Culbertson. Both teams are run-heavy, with the Cowboys being led by do-all running back Noah Nickoloff. Seitz says he sees a lot of ex-Scobey star Riley Linder in Nickoloff, so they expect a tough matchup.
Fairview only has three seniors on this year’s squad of 21. Junior Alex Schriver is now the team’s quarterback and plays defensive back as well. Last year’s quarterback, senior Carson Cayko, is essentially Fairview’s Swiss Army knife. They plug Cayko all over the field and now Schriver can distribute the ball to him and fellow juniors Jesse Selting and Cody Asbeck making for a dangerous offensive juggernaut. Alex Young and Bryce Neu make up the team’s other two seniors.
Cayko played against Circle but was injured and made his return against Scobey. With the team back at full health, they’re confident heading into the game against Culbertson.
“We let them know it’s a big game,” the second-year head coach said. “We try not to let it get out of hand and we’re not trying to freak them out but we have to make sure they know that they have to take care of their job because we don’t want to have to drive to Charlo or something crazy like that.”
He makes a good point, as postseason trips in football tend to get long when both sides of the state collide. Seitz and Fairview know it well, as last year they were tasked to hit the road to take on Drummond-Philipsburg in the quarterfinals. So those home games stack up as huge advantages, one both teams will be looking to get an edge on.
“Honestly, we kind of took that same mentality in the first week against Circle because we knew that was going to be such an important game,” Seitz said. “First week of the season was pretty much a playoff game and now this is, too.
“We let them know that Culbertson is no joke. They play physical football so show up and be ready to play.”
Centerville readies for Shelby
The 8-Man ranks see a host of important games this week that have playoff implications that could determine the No. 1 seeds in three conferences.
Along with Fairview-Culbertson, No. 5 Joliet (5-0) is hosting No. 6 Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap (5-0) in a battle for the top spot in the 8-Man South.
The third conference will be the 8-Man North in a feature game between No. 2 Shelby (4-0) and No. 8 Centerville (5-0) for the lead in the 8-Man North B Sub-Division. Because there are so many teams in the 8-Man North, they are split into the A and B Sub-Divisions. The winners of both divisions will play for the top two seeds from the 8-Man North. Then, the No. 2 teams from each division will play the opposite divisions No. 3 for the remaining playoff seeds. Shelby will travel to Centerville for the game.
In short, the difference between a home and away game could be on the line Saturday between Shelby and Centerville. And similar to Seitz, Centerville coach Brian Davison’s message to his team is this is a game to be ready for.
“Winning a game like this guarantees us a top-two spot going into the playoffs and at worst we’ll be the No. 2 seed coming out of the North,” Davison said. “Losing a game like this, at best we’ll be a No. 3 seed and be on the road. It has a lot of importance.”
Last year, in the same week, Centerville played against Fort Benton with a similar scenario, one the Miners won 62-40. The Miners took the No. 2 seed from the 8-Man North and hosted the Circle Wildcats in the opening round, a game the Miners ultimately lost.
“We had experience from it last year and it was huge for us to get a home playoff game,” Davison said. “It’s very important at this point in the season to see where you’re going to be.”
Centerville lost only three players from last season, so a majority of Davison’s team knows exactly how important a game like this is.
“They saw how it was last year and they understand it’s a big game for us and a big opportunity if we want to accomplish the goals that we set out to do this year,” Davison said.
It’s a tall task. Shelby was the Class B runner-up a year ago and is in its first year in 8-Man football. Aside from a close 23-14 win over Fort Benton on Sept. 14, the Coyotes have cruised through the regular season. However, Centerville will be their toughest challenge to date.
Centerville has 23 kids out this year, including seven seniors and 10 juniors, so the group is older and experienced. Davison noted that junior quarterback and defensive back Carson McGinness and senior receiver and defensive back Cooper Davis have been the team’s two standouts. Senior Blayne Kohut and junior Jadon Davis have also been key to the Miners’ success, Davison said. Four of Centerville’s five games have been on the road.
Davison said the team has battled quite a few injuries throughout the year, particularly on the offensive line, but Centerville’s most recent win over Choteau saw the team at full strength for the first time this year. They expect the same on Saturday against Shelby and are ready for the challenge at hand.
“We definitely had high expectations coming into the year,” Davison said. “We knew that we had some good talent this year and we believe that we could make a good run this season. We’re definitely sitting where we expected to be right now and we’re definitely glad to be where we are. The boys are focused and excited for it.”