MISSOULA — Clark Fork saw its time coming on the horizon. The Mountain Cats just needed to seize their moment.
They did just that two Fridays ago to open the high school football season. A co-op of small towns Alberton and Superior, Clark Fork started with a 74-42 victory over two-time defending 8-Man football champion Flint Creek (Drummond-Philipsburg). The win snapped the Titans' 25-game winning streak which was the longest in the state regardless of classification at the time.
Last Friday, Clark Fork kept its momentum in a 54-32 win over St. Ignatius, another one of the Western 8-Man's top teams. Now, the Mountain Cats sit at 2-0 and ranked No. 3 in the most recent 406mtsports.com high school football polls.
Coach Jeff Schultz knew this team was going to be ready for the spotlight. After all, Clark Fork graduated just two seniors from last year's team, which made the opening round of the 8-Man playoffs before losing to eventual runner-up Great Falls Central.
The success can be attributed to one thing in particular:
"Our leadership," Schultz said. "Our juniors and seniors have really stepped up. Whether it was taking on Flint Creek, which has been the power of Class C 8-Man football the past two years, and not being intimidated and going out there and getting after them.
"Against Mission, we came out slow early and got way behind and that leadership was able pull us back out and get us going."
Clark Fork sports 27 players for varsity football this year, including eight seniors. Schultz, his staff and his players all saw moments in 2018 where they knew there could be special days ahead of them.
"We definitely felt like last year, as the year went on, we got better and better every game. And so by the end of the year we were feeling really good," Schultz said. "When we returned everybody this year, we definitely were talking about having everything we need. We just need to be mentally strong and take the games one play at a time."
The biggest improvements from each season was on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, the Mountain Cats clicked, so Schultz just needed the two sides to gel together at the same time.
Which, through two games this season, is exactly what has happened.
Schultz, who is in his fifth year as head coach, pointed to senior nose tackle Jacob Lapinski as the team's anchor on defense. Lapinski has racked up 27 total tackles so far this season, including seven for loss. He's added a pair of sacks as well. Senior running back and middle linebacker Trey Green has also been huge. Green leads the team in tackles with 37 and also has a pair of sacks. Offensively, he has 40 carries for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Green has also caught seven passes for 129 yards and three more scores.
Junior Bryan Mask has been the engine of the offense and hasn't missed a beat so far. Mask has completed 41 of 70 passes this year for 759 yards and 13 touchdowns to two interceptions. He's added 79 yards on the ground and one more score. Senior receivers Isaiah Kovalsky and Kyler Francis have been the biggest beneficiaries of Mask's targets. Kovalsky has 15 catches for 240 yards and five scores while Francis has hauled in 11 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns. Senior lineman Hewston Coon has been another two-way star lineman for the Mountain Cats.
The season is still early and Schultz said he'd like to see Clark Fork clean up some mistakes, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But there is plenty of time to see those changes come to fruition as the Mountain Cats continue down the stretch of the season. Clark Fork hosts Thompson Falls (2-0) this Friday.
And their goal is a simple one.
"Go 1-0 every single play," Schultz said. "That's been our focus ever since we've started."
And so far, the Mountain Cats are a team to take note of going forward.
Eureka continues winning ways
After winning its first state football championship in school history in 2016, Eureka was downright unstoppable in 2017 on its way to an undefeated season and a second Class B state title.
The Lions regressed in 2018, which is to be expected at the high school level. Players graduate and move on, including current Griz Garrett Graves, who anchored both of those squads. Injuries took their toll as well.
But two games into the season, the Lions are 2-0, ranked No. 2 in the 406mtsports.com rankings, and sport 12 seniors with plenty of experience as they push toward a third state title game appearance in four years.
"I'm very impressed with our kids right now," Eureka head coach Trevor Utter said. "A lot of these guys playing key roles this year started and played key roles last year. Seniors matter and we're seeing that. We have really good leadership and maturity out of these kids."
Utter, who is in his eighth season heading Eureka, said last year the Lions only had a handful of seniors so the younger kids were forced to step up, which they've done so far. And the maturation of these players from their junior to senior seasons has been evident to Utter right from the beginning.
The signs were there a year ago. The Lions ultimately made the Class B playoffs, losing to Manhattan in the first round.
But this season, Utter pointed to a specific example in Eureka's 49-14 win over Townsend last Friday, that shows the team's growth. The Lions were driving and fumbled. Instead of hanging heads and folding and letting the Bulldogs score, he said his defense forced a three-and-out, got the ball back, and went down and scored.
"Those little things can be momentum shifters if you're not mature and able to handle it," Utter said.
Seniors Chet McCully, Hank Dunn and Jake Kindel have been three players who were thrown into the fire as sophomores in 2017 when the Lions last won state and have since turned into the team's leaders. McCully, who was all-state in 2017, was lost in 2018 to an ACL injury, but has rushed for four touchdowns so far this season, including three against Townsend. Dunn, the team's quarterback, has also rushed for four scores and passed for three more. Senior Cory Chaney has been another senior leader along with those three.
Eureka opened the season with a 35-0 win over Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The Lions head to Deer Lodge on Friday.
"We were very confident (coming in) because you look at the roster and see we have 12 seniors that all have experience playing football," Utter said. "That right there, when you go into battle with those kids, you're thinking, you know what, we have a chance in every game.
"Our expectations are very high."
But don't misunderstand that confidence with complacency. Utter had a laundry list of areas the Lions can improve, especially attention to detail. But overall, he's happy with what they've done to start off 2019.
"We have a lot of things to clean up," Utter said. "But I'm happy with how our kids responded to Townsend who is a solid, solid football team. Our kids did a nice job of responding to that challenge."