MISSOULA — The good news for Florence football coach Pat Duchien is he’s had an increase in the number of athletes come out for the team in each of his four seasons.
The part that’s challenging is he had to maneuver 47 players, up from 29 when he took over, around the Florence gym from Monday through Thursday as smoke forced the Falcons indoors for practice. Not just any indoor practice, they had to make sure to keep players separated in the gym or split them up between film review and practice because of the coronavirus while wearing masks and sanitizing equipment.
"We’re still a young team with new faces and things to clean up, but you can only do so much in a Class B basketball gym," Duchien said, noting that forecasts for Friday’s game were looking more positive. "It doesn’t bode well for a spread offense like us. So we’ll have to keep our guys mentally ready to go for our game."
That’s if there’s a game Friday because of smoke from wildfires lingering over western Montana. Florence’s game at Bigfork, as well as most games featuring western Montana teams, are on as scheduled for Friday, with decisions to come around early afternoon Friday.
Three games scheduled for Friday have been rescheduled: Browning at Whitefish was moved up to Thursday because a shortage of officials, Darby at Thompson Falls was moved to 1 p.m. Saturday because of smoke, and Noxon at Hot Springs was moved to Oct. 9 because of smoke.
The matchup between Florence and Bigfork is one of two games across western Montana featuring two ranked teams. The Falcons are No. 5 and the Vikings are No. 4 in Class B, and the winner could have an inside path to win the league title. They’re each 2-1 with an overtime loss, the Falcons falling to Class B No. 2 Manhattan and the Vikings losing to Class A Lewistown.
"Manhattan’s one of the top teams in the state, and Bigfork is not really far behind them," Duchien said. "Bigfork is a really solid, big, physical team."
It’ll be a clash of styles as Bigfork’s ground-and-pound offense takes on a Florence attack that’s had a 50-50 run-to-pass ratio but has accumulated more passing yards because of the play of sophomore quarterback Pat Duchien Jr., several athletes at the skill positions, and the most physical offensive and defensive lines Duchien has seen in his nine years at Florence.
Duchien Jr. is in his first year as a full-time starter and is coming off a win over Anaconda in which he completed 13 of 21 passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns. He tossed those four scores to four different players on four different routes.
"He’s such a smart kid. He takes after his mom," said Duchien, whose wife, Christy Duchien, is the Florence volleyball coach. "He’s a student of the game, can pick up schemes really quick, which has helped us advance our offensive system. The biggest thing is he’s able to disperse the ball around the field and not lock in on just one receiver. He does a really good job of going through his checks."
In the other top-five western Montana matchup, Class A No. 1 Hamilton will host No. 3 Dillon in what is a tantalizing clash between two talented outfits.
Both teams are 3-0 and look like they could be contenders for deep playoff runs. The Beavers have posted two shutouts and outlasted a tough Frenchtown team, 20-13, in their opener.
Following a forfeit victory against Butte Central in the opener, the Broncs have outscored their opponents, Corvallis and Stevensville, 116-6.
"We're really going to see where we're at," Hamilton head coach Bryce Carver said. "You know, maybe we're as good as we think we are or maybe we need to kind of refocus and work on a lot more stuff."
The battles the two schools have had go back a long time. Last season, Dillon squeezed by the Broncs in a tight contest that was one of the better high school football games of the year.
It'll be something of a contrast in styles. Hamilton's wide-open offense will go against a defense-minded Beavers team that loves to hit. That's not to discount the Dillon offense, which is lead by Montana State commit Jace Fitzgerald.
There's plenty of mutual respect between the teams and coaching staffs and they're all excited to play the game, which could be moved to Saturday if wildfire smoke doesn't clear early enough.
"They're solid across the board and they don't go through one guy," Carver said after heaping praise on Fitzgerald, wideout Cole Truman and several other Dillon standouts. "They don't try and get one guy the ball all the time or give someone 20 touches. They're balanced and pretty solid across the board."
Around the area
Among other area games, Class AA No. 1 Missoula Sentinel (1-0) will host its senior night when it takes on Helena Capital (0-1).
"It's about honoring the kids who have invested in the program," Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said. "We don't know what the future holds, and we want to make sure we not only thank the seniors but their parents for being involved."
The Spartans are coming off a 59-19 win over Kalispell Flathead in their opener and will host a rebuilding Bruins teams that lost 43-20 at No. 5 Kalispell Glacier.
"I've been super pleased with their football intellect," Oliver said of his team. "Flathead threw some things at us we haven't seen, and our kids didn't panic. They looked like seasoned vets out there. It was a little peek into who they are and who they can become."
As for who they can become: "It's hard to speculate in this day and age," he added. "They're a group that's talented. But are we going to come together as a team? Are we going to be able to play a full season? Our approach of taking things one day at a time hasn't changed. Our message is we've got to clean things up and improve. It's a blessing we're even getting to play."
Missoula Big Sky travels to No. 2 Helena High after a season-opening win over Missoula Hellgate, who goes to Kalispell Flathead. Kalispell Glacier will play at Butte.
In Class A, No. 5 Libby will put its 3-0 record on the line at Columbia Falls (2-1), Frenchtown heads to winless Stevensville looking to win its third straight after losing its opener, Polson is also looking for a third consecutive win after dropping its opener when it hosts Ronan and Corvallis will look to end a two-game skid when it hosts winless Butte Central.
In Class B, Loyola (0-1) hits the road to face No. 2 Manhattan and Eureka (2-1) will look to rebound from its first loss when it plays at Anaconda after getting a win by forfeit last week.
In 8-Man, defending state runner-up Clark Fork (2-1) will try to avoid a second loss when it travels to Flint Creek (2-0), which won the 2017 and 2018 state titles. The Mountain Cats held some of their practice at the indoor Tarkio Equestrian Center this week because of the smoke.
Charlo (3-0) travels to winless Troy, St. Ignatius (0-3) will look for its first win when it hosts Seeley-Swan (1-1) after losing a 74-68 affair against Clark Fork last week, and Thompson Falls will look to move to 4-0 when it hosts Darby 1 p.m. Saturday, the same time Arlee travels to winless Victor.
There aren’t any games featuring area 6-Man teams this week.