HELENA — A 2,000-yard passer?
A pair of running backs that combined for 20 rushing touchdowns?
A wide receiver that finished third in the state with 56 catches?
Nowhere to be found.
Helena Capital football coach Kyle Mihelish knows all-state players graduate every year.
But you aren’t likely to hear the word “rebuild” floating around the team. Capital expects to be competitive in 2020.
“Our goal every year is to win a state championship and that will never change,” Mihelish said.
The Bruins finished last season with eight wins and made it to the second round of the Class AA playoffs.
Now, as a new season dawns, Capital returns very few starters who have had a considerable amount of varsity playing time.
This season will look different as coronavirus has forced the Montana High School Association to shorten football down to seven games. The change, however, gave Mihelish some extra days to coach his young group.
“Just like any year, we spend a lot of time on the practice field communicating ideas and concepts, whether it is route combinations, coverages or techniques on the offensive and defensive fronts,” Mihelish said. “Obviously, the learning curve is a little higher when you have a new group, but that’s the fun part, you get to teach them the game of football.”
Capital will return senior wide receiver Quinn Belcher, who finished last year third on the team with 278 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Senior lineman Tyler Little also returns on the defense.
There are plenty of fresh faces, but Little doesn’t mind. In fact, he enjoys stepping up as a mentor to the younger kids.
“They will always ask me what I can do better,” Little said. “I always talk about what to do in specific situations.”
Does that mean he wants to pursue being a football coach once he is done with his schooling?
“I thought about it,” Little said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Though Mihelish knew there were going to be plenty of positions open, he made it a point that backup players were not automatically going to be given starting spots. Everyone was going to have to fight for it.
“On Friday we will go with the best 11 guys, no matter what,” he said. “I felt comfortable with a few of the positions, but last week’s scrimmage also helped. Just last week, we were looking at secondary and linebacker spots.”
After weeks of fall practices and a scrimmage, he will trot out a lineup that features little experience. Only two defensive players who played in every game last season will return. Running back Tiegan Cozzie ran the ball just six times. Wide receivers Tom Carter and Anthony Bouchard didn’t catch a single pass between them. Quarterback Matt Burton watched from the sidelines and learned from his predecessor Bridger Grovom.
The punter and kicker are new as well.
Mihelish knows his young group won’t be perfect and they will make mistakes, but he also believes that there are young players who will shine if given the opportunity.
“We are going to have a fresh group of linebackers with Jacob Welnel, Rayce Neill and Tucker Zanto,” Mihelish said. “On offense, we have tight end Hayden Opitz, who is a physical kid, and our offensive line is all new but coach (Jim Hogan) has done a great job with these kids.”
No matter which new player takes the field, each of them wants to make an impact.
Just take sophomore Tyler Kovick, for example.
Kovick played on the freshman team last year. It didn’t take long for him to find out that varsity Class AA football is a lot different.
“You can’t make mistakes,” Kovick said. “You have to pick it up faster, especially when you go up against our big linemen,”
With the new players in place, now the goal is to get them to work together.
But Mihelish said that the start of this season is perfect for that.
The Bruins start the season with two consecutive road trips, the first to Kalispell Glacier and the second to Missoula Sentinel.
Mihelish said a two or three hour road trip might just be the answer.
“I’ve always liked going on the road because you are together with no distractions,” Mihelish said. “The concentration is just on football. You aren’t at home with the girlfriends or family. On the road, there is a focus that you just don’t get at home.”
Capital returns to Helena on Sept. 25 to host Kalispell Flathead and Butte before finishing up with a road game against Missoula Big Sky. The final two games will be at home against Missoula Hellgate and rival Helena.
The Bruins have put together winning seasons four out of the last five years, and even with a new group of players, their mission is to keep moving forward, no matter how much experience they have.
“You don’t come out here trying to lose,” Little said. “You come out here to always get better and strive for that championship.”