The East team takes a break

Eastern team players take a short break during a Sunday evening practice at Wendy's Field at Daylis Stadium in preparation for Saturday's Montana East-West Shrine Game in Billings. 

BILLINGS — It was time for ice cream.

At the end of the day, players from the East enjoyed ice cream sandwiches and Drumstick ice cream cones as the sun began to set, ending Day 1 of practices leading up to the 74th annual Montana East-West Shrine Game.

Players laughed and visited with friends and old foes from the regular season as they geared up for the game Saturday at 7 p.m. at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium.

And, it wasn’t lost on the participants that the game benefits the Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane, Washington. A press release from game organizers said the contest “is the longest running yearly game in the country” and “all net proceeds from the game go directly” to the hospital.

“Just having fun competing,” said Junior Bergen, who graduated from Billings Senior this spring and who will play wide receiver in the game. “You have the best kids from the East vs. the best kids from the West. Plus, it’s for a really good cause — which is always great.”

Players from the East reported to Billings on Sunday and are staying at Montana State Billings.

The Western team camp started in Butte on Sunday and the Western squad will arrive in Billings on Friday.

East coach John Fitzgerald, the football coach at Red Lodge, played in the game in 1997 as a Columbus Cougar before playing for the Montana Grizzlies. He has also been an assistant coach in the game. It is his first time serving as head coach.

“It’s a tremendous privilege and an opportunity to give back for a great cause and coach the best athletes in the state,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience.”

Fitzgerald said he is looking forward to coaching against Dane Oliver of Missoula Sentinel, who is guiding the West squad.

“It will be nice to hook up with Dane Oliver,” Fitzgerald said. “We were teammates on the Griz. It will be nice to see him again.”

While it was a little cooler at practice Sunday evening, the first practice of the day was held at 3 p.m. at Daylis when it was warmer and Fitzgerald estimated the artificial turf adds 10 degrees to the temperature.

“We are just trying to make it through the week’s practices,” Bergen said. “It is pretty hot, we’ll just try to finish the week out and get ready for Saturday.”

With temperatures in Billings in the low 90s on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are expected to reach 100 degrees. The high temperatures are expected to be in the mid to upper 80s on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with a high of 90 Saturday.

Despite the warm temperatures, the players are excited. Overall, 13 players from Billings are listed on the roster and they’d all undoubtedly like to go out on a high note at Daylis.

“It’s a little bittersweet, the last one here,” said Bergen of his final prep game. “But at least it’s here. I’d rather it not be anywhere else.”

More than likely, there will be more cold ice cream later this week. Fans will also be treated to a quality game on Saturday, said Fitzgerald.

“The fact that we haven’t had an all-star game in two years,” he said. “It will give people a chance to get in the stands and it will be for a great cause and people can see some great athletes perform.”

Email Gazette Sports Editor John Letasky at john.letasky@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL

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