Florence linebacker Zack Dixon

Florence junior linebacker Zack Dixon puts a hit on Missoula Loyola running back Taylor Jones during a game earlier this season in Florence.

MISSOULA — On Thursday, Bigfork and Florence wrapped up their final practices of the 2021 season.

While Bigfork has a drought of about 11 years since last winning a Class B football state title, the Falcons are trying to accomplish something that has never been done at the school when the title game kicks off at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Florence High School.

Florence’s practice started off with some nerves and that is pretty expected and normal. The Falcons have never been in this spot as an 11-man football program, ever.

“They’ve had a really good week of practice,” coach Pat Duchien said Friday morning. “We saw a little bit of that coming out at the start of practice and I brought them in and just said, 'OK, let’s take a breath. Guys, let’s take this in and take a breath. We are under the lights, it’s the last Thursday of the season.’ After that they locked in and there was a lot of hooping and hollering like there has been previously.”

The Falcons have made a state title game twice in their school history — both times they were playing 8-Man football in Class C and both times were over 40 years ago. The Falcons went 10-0 and won the title in 1977, 45-8, over Absarokee, and three years later in 1980 the Falcons lost to Columbus in the Class C title game.

Forty-one years have gone by since Ron Nau’s team won the football title and 40 years ago, the boys track and field title went to Florence in 1981. Those two titles still stand as the only boys team state championships for the program in the Bitterroot Valley, and Duchien is relishing the chance to join the title club and bring a trophy back to Florence.

He brought in a special guest who knows a thing or two about winning titles in Florence. John Cornish, an assistant coach on the title-winning football team and the head track and field coach who had a hand in that title, gave a message to the new generation of Falcons who have a shot at a state trophy.

“The one thing that really stuck out, and he used a great analogy, he used a golf analogy,” Duchien said. “He said they even used to use it back when they were coaching. It was ‘You drive for show. You putt for dough.’ I’m going ‘OK I like this, I’m a golfer.’ You drive it 280 yards but you have a six-inch putt, what’s going to count the most? Making that six-inch putt, so he talked about going out and doing the little things with that.”

The trophy from the ‘77 football team has collected some dust, Duchien said, but a plaque was made for the last Falcons football championship team. It is hanging up in the Falcons’ locker room this week as a reminder of the history the current group is chasing.

“We take it a little further,” Duchien admitted. “We said, ‘You guys can be the first 11-man team to win a state championship.’ And that’s not taking anything away from those ‘77 guys because I know those guys are just awesome and did a phenomenal job. … It lets these boys have a little bit more of a historical mark on it.”

Members of the '77 team will be in attendance Saturday in Florence, cheering on their alma mater and, if they have it their way, celebrating a title 44 years in the making.

“It will be really cool to have 44 years apart and have them come together and hopefully be able to celebrate together,” Duchien said.

Get-to attitude

For Bigfork, its final practice on Thursday ended with emotions for a team that has gone through adversity this fall.

Following an early-season win over Whitehall, junior Dane Hansen passed away. 

"It's been a tough year,' Vikings coach Jim Benn said Thursday night. "We've gone through some things that are kinda beyond what you would typically go through in a year. ... That's kinda changed the focus of the year in a certain way."

The Vikings knocked off the No. 2-seeded team out of the north in Glasgow, the top seed out of the south in Townsend and a familiar program in the second seed from the west, Eureka, in the semifinals.

They are the most traveled team in the B — and the third-most in the entire state — with 1,668 miles driven in their playoff run, including the Saturday trip to the Bitterroot.

Now, the Vikings (9-2) get the toughest road test of the postseason: top-seeded and undefeated Florence.

“The Western B is just great football,” Benn said. “You got Florence who is obviously loaded to the gills. Eureka is a perennial power, they’ve won three state championships in the last 10 years and are very well coached. … And Bigfork has had a great tradition as well.”

The Vikings know how good Florence is as well as anyone since they play in the same league, losing to the Falcons 63-26 this season. But don’t call it a revenge game. That’s not how the Vikings see things.

It’s a get-to game, as Benn put it. The Vikings see the game as just another chance to play on the field together as a team; as a family.

“This is just an opportunity to play again together,” he said. “I don’t get caught up in all that. I like the Florence guys. I like the Florence kids. To make it a revenge, it isn’t what we are about. We have tremendous respect for them and their program. We are happy to be there and hope we give them a good game because they deserve it.”

Lance Hartzler covers Griz men's basketball and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter at @lance_hartz or shoot him an email at Lance.Hartzler@406mtsports.com.

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