MISSOULA — Class AA football is back in Missoula.
With non-conference football canceled, Friday night will be an opportunity for Missoula's biggest high schools to finally get on the field for some meaningful football. Missoula Sentinel will play host to Kalispell Flathead at Missoula County Stadium, while Missoula Big Sky and Missoula Hellgate have a crosstown game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium at 7 p.m.
Each player will be allowed two spectators at the events in accordance with MCPS and Missoula City-County Health Department regulations.
"It's time for a game, you know it's been a lot, just what our whole world has gone through in the last six months," Spartans coach Dane Oliver said. "So just hoping for about two and a half hours that these boys can just be teenagers and play a great game together on Friday night."
Coming off a 10-2 season that ended with a close game to Bozeman at home in the Class AA state semifinals, the Spartans are excited to get back on the field. Sentinel is a state title contender and perhaps even the favorite.
Bozeman brings a lot back and Helena High, Kalispell Glacier and Billings West all look deep. But the Western AA might just run through Missoula and more specifically, Sentinel.
Expectations are high, even if Oliver and his team don't know all that much about what Flathead is going to look like. The lack of non-conference games due to COVID-19 concerns strips the teams of film to have and outside of the Braves' scrimmage, there's not a bunch to go on.
Sentinel will simply have to adjust.
"We're really gonna have to spend the first half evaluating a lot of things," Oliver said. "They were very vanilla in their scrimmage and they were pretty vanilla in their scrimmage ... Really, our focus has been on the Sentinel Spartans and us playing the game the right way and these boys having fun as a team."
Flathead reached the state title game in 2018 and then lost its coach, Kyle Samson, who went from offensive coordinator at Montana Tech to now head coach. The Braves went 2-9 last year as they adjusted to a new coach and also lost quite a bit of their team from a year ago.
But it's a strong program with a lot of football history and with everything having been so uncertain throughout the summer, there's no telling who could end up being at the top of the pack come the end of the season.
Quarterback Dayton Bay returns for Sentinel along with Frenchtown transfer Jace Klucewich. Several Missoula schools have also had out-of-state transfers move into the area.
"We got great players to utilize and maximize," Oliver said. "We just have to maximize everybody's individual talents and make the team better."
Big Sky and Hellgate are ready to see what they can do as well. Hellgate coach Mick Morris is excited about new quarterback Dante Mairui as well as Lucas James, both of whom are transfers from Washington with family already in the area.
Brayden Terzo is another player that has been special for the Knights throughout the years.
"We got a lot of young kids starting and a lot of new faces," Morris said. "It's a lot of fun. It's also a lot of uncertainty. I know what we're capable of athletically, but what is that gonna look like when we line up against someone else? We'll find out (Friday) night."
Big Sky will try to bounce back after a 1-9 campaign. Colter Janacaro will be a major factor for the Eagles, who lost quite a bit off their team from a year ago.
"I think the kids are excited, but also super nervous," Morris said. "I know that this week they've kinda been a bit more quiet."
In other games around the area, Columbia Falls will travel to Whitefish while Corvallis and Frenchtown face off. Polson travels to Browning while Arlee is at St. Regis. Florence will head to Anaconda, St. Ignatius will face Clark Fork and Flint Creek hosts Troy. Libby and Ronan will play, Seeley-Swan is at Thompson Falls and Plains and Charlo will face off.