COLUMBIA FALLS — Like the snowy mountains that served as a backdrop, there were rocky parts for the Hamilton football team Saturday afternoon.
Each time the Broncs responded with the will and persistence you'd expect from an undefeated team on a mission to win a State A title.
Hamilton reached the championship game for the second straight year with a 41-27 semifinal win over the team that beat them in the title game last year, Columbia Falls, at Satterthwaite Field. The Broncs (11-0) will play host to Billings Central (11-0) in next Saturday's chipper in Hamilton.
"Like I just told the kids, this has been our goal since last November," Hamilton coach Bryce Carver said. "It was really, really hard losing that game up here last year and we wanted a shot at them.
"The regular season is the regular season," he added, referring to his team's win in Columbia Falls in August. "You don't put much stock in that. That wasn't our end-all, be-all. But this one was."
The Broncs' smash-mouth running attack was the difference, bailing them out when penalties and a failure to convert on a crucial fourth down play in the third quarter kept the Wildcats close. Senior running back Michael Golden piled up 146 yards rushing on 23 carries and quarterback Carson Rostad added 66 yards on 17 totes.
"We'd spread them out with the pass and just hit them up the gut with the run," Golden said. "That was the game plan from the beginning and it kept working, so we kept hitting it."
The Broncs finished with 11 penalties, two of which spoiled long pass plays in the first half. Yet they went into the locker room at halftime with a 21-7 lead.
Golden gave the visitors their first lead on a 10-yard pass from Rostad. Columbia Falls answered with a 69-yard TD run by Colten McPhee.
After two frustrating penalties, both of which negated passes that would have set up Hamilton deep in Wildcats territory, the Broncs were forced to punt. Hamilton's defense then picked up the slack, with a fumble recovery by Jacob Campbell that set up a short drive capped by Rostad's 2-yard TD run.
Camron Rothie added a 76-yard TD reception with 5:41 left in the first half and the Broncs seemed to be on cruise control. That was until a third-quarter decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at their own 38-yard line led to disaster.
Not only did Hamilton fail to convert, the Wildcats (8-2) used the momentum shift to cut their deficit to 21-14 on a McPhee 33-yard run.
Then came the most important drive of the game by the Broncs. Powered by a stout offensive line, they ran the ball down the Wildcats' throat, with totes of 12 and 18 yards by Golden setting up a 10-yard TD scamper by Rostad that made the score 28-14 with 4:25 left in the third period.
The drive seemed to crush Columbia Falls' spirit. Hamilton's lead ballooned to 41-14 early in the fourth quarter and then it was just a matter of holding on against a Columbia Falls team lacking a quick-strike passing attack.
"The kids stayed with it and did a good job having that confidence to keep battling back and not letting that adversity bug us," said Carver, whose team was flagged for 11 penalties. "Our offensive line has done a great job all year long and that kind of opens up our passing game."
Now comes the ultimate for the Broncs. They get to host Billings Central on their brand new field Saturday, hoping for a storybook ending to a perfect season.
"Winning it on our new field would just make it perfect," Golden said. "Everyone is going to be trying real hard."