HAMILTON — In 2017, it was Hamilton that dealt Billings Central heartache in the Class A playoffs.
On Saturday at the Broncs' new Hamilton Athletic Complex, the Rams returned the favor.
No. 2-ranked Billings Central bulldozed its way to a 28-21 Class A state title win against No. 1 Hamilton, grinding out 430 yards on the ground and slowing a Bronc offense that had been averaging 48 points per game coming into the championship game.
It was a win that was in the works ever since the Rams lost against Hamilton by one score, 35-28, in last year's state semifinal.
"That (2017 semifinal), that game changed us. It changed our mentality and how we look at the game," said Billings Central quarterback Joe Byorth, one of 15 upperclassmen on the Rams roster."...We had one common goal between the entire team and we knew we'd achieve it if we trusted each other and stayed together."
Byorth, who finished the game with 228 total yards and 138 yards running the ball, scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown just ten seconds into the fourth quarter. His touchdown, which put Billings Central ahead 28-14 with 11:50 to play, was actually uncharacteristic of the Rams' play all day.
The score came fast. Four plays after the Broncs' fifth punt of the game — Hamilton had punted just 17 times in its 11 previous games — Byorth faked a hand off and followed his blockers up the middle of the field. His 16-yard scamper ended a drive that lasted just 62 seconds.
To compare, the Rams had the ball for over 34 minutes to Hamilton's 13:16.
"The key to our game is always to hang on to the football. We gotta keep it away from those weapons and their quarterback, who is pretty special," said Billings Central coach Jim Stanton. "You saw what happened when they have the ball and start slinging it. We knew coming in we had to control the clock and the ball and we did a pretty good job of that today."
Fortunately for Hamilton, scoring quick has been the Broncs calling card all season.
On the Broncs first drive of the second half, they drove 73 yards on four plays in just 27 seconds to cut into Billings Central's lead, 21-14. The Rams scored on the first possession of the third quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run from Duncan Kraft that capped an eight play, 3 minute drive.
Hamilton's quick score that followed came after a 48-yard run from Michael Golden, a pair of jump-ball passes to Tyler Barnes and 2-yard scoring plunge from quarterback Carson Rostad.
"The kids made some good plays on that drive," Hamilton coach Bryce Carver said. "It's what we've done all year and we were able to capitalize on that drive."
Rostad, who threw for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns, then found Brock Jones for the 2-point conversion to make it a one score game.
Billings Central's offense droned on, though. Although Byorth had the only Ram score from there, the Rams were able to substantially drain the clock on each subsequent drive. While Central's ensuing drive ended with Hamilton's Tucker Jones blocking a 30-yard field goal, it also ate up nearly 7 minutes of clock.
Kraft, who finished with a game-high 199 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, had a pair of Bronc-crushing third-down conversions on the long series.
"Have you seen those guys? Those guys are studs," Byorth said of his senior running backs Kraft and Jack Studer, who added 86 yards and a score on the ground for the Rams.
Hamilton's playmaking ability kept it in the game until the final two minutes, however. The Broncs were able to thwart a Central fourth-down conversion on Hamilton's 17-yard line with 2:43 remaining, and Rostad and Co. drove the length of the field to pull within one score, 28-21.
Hamilton's junior quarterback converted a pair of fourth downs, one with a 15-yard scramble and another with a 22-yard pass to Barnes that put the Broncs on the 3-yard line.
From there, Rostad hit Michael Golden for a short touchdown pass, affording the 1,500-plus Hamilton fans a few more seconds of belief with 1:10 remaining in the game.
"We were keeping track of the time and we knew we had to be quick," said Barnes, who had a game-high 84 yards receiving. "I thought we put ourselves in a position where we could send it to overtime.
"We just ran out of time"
The Broncs were unable to convert the onside kick, and the next two plays, Byorth and the tough Billings Central run game only had to kneel twice to hand Hamilton its second straight loss in the Class A championship game.
"Credit to Billings Central, they have a great defense," said Carver, whose squad came up one win shy of the perfect season (11-1 overall). "That front three gave us a lot of trouble today and credit to them."
For the Rams, finishing off the undefeated season (12-0), it was their first state title since 2012.