Bozeman High's new Van Winkle Stadium

The Bozeman Hawks host the Great Falls Bison on Friday in the first-ever football game at the new Van Winkle Stadium.

BOZEMAN — It’s 90 minutes before kickoff on a chilly and windy homecoming Friday at Bozeman High School’s new Van Winkle Stadium, and activities director Mark Ator is bouncing from one place to the next, making sure everything is in order and on schedule for the Hawks’ first game at their plush new football home against Class AA rival Great Falls.

Ator, a Montana State University alum, is in his first year at Bozeman after spending the previous 29 at Colstrip High School as both a football coach and an athletic administrator, and he’s feeling as much excitement as anyone.

“If I’m coaching football tonight, I would be jacked,” Ator said as students and fans began to file in. “I’m jealous of those guys tonight.”

The venue sits just north of the old Van Winkle Stadium, where the Hawks had played football for decades. It was reportedly built at a cost of $7.5 million, and it will serve as home for both Bozeman High and the new Gallatin High School, which will open next fall.

Ator was hired over the summer to be the activities director for both schools. He said the new stadium, which was funded by taxpayers after voters passed a bond issue in 2017, was a necessity.

“It always seems really expensive when you do it, but if you do it right it lasts forever,” Ator said. “I think what Bozeman’s done, and with Gallatin High School opening next year, people know their kids will be going to a quality place for a long time. And Bozeman’s not going to get smaller in the future.”

The stadium is complete with synthetic FieldTurf — the Hawks were one of the last grass-playing teams in Class AA — a state-of-the-art Daktronics video board, centrally located locker rooms on the north end of the complex and a spacious, end-to-end booth atop the west grandstand with seven separate rooms in which coaches, game day operators and media can work.

“I think it’s cool that it’s a football-only facility, and I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house, No. 1,” Ator said. “No. 2, I like that the locker rooms are right next to the field. For years here at Bozeman High, they’ve been using basement locker rooms in two different buildings, so the coordination was a lot. But now we’re all here, we’re right here under one roof, essentially.

“I think the booth upstairs … those are big, beautiful rooms. And we’ve updated the technology, and it will last a long time. And you can improve it. That’s probably the other thing. The video board is going to allow us to do some things and entertain the fans in the stadium.”

The venue is part of a much larger plan to improve the existing Bozeman High School, and is part of a growing facilities objective for athletics. Currently, a new softball complex is being built to the north, and the current tennis courts and soccer fields sit adjacent to the east and north.

“With this stadium the way it’s sitting, now we’ve got the softball field, the soccer fields, the tennis courts, it looks like a great campus,” Ator said. “It just adds to it. I think they did a great job building this.”

“We have a football facility that we can be proud of, a community facility that we can be proud of for a long time,” he said.

And it didn’t take long for the Hawks to christen it.

At 7:01 p.m., the first kickoff sailed through the air toward Bozeman’s Asher Croy standing in front of the north end zone.

Croy caught the ball, ran to his left and handed it off to teammate Braeden Mikkelson on a reverse. Mikkelson cut up the sideline, made a move at midfield and sprinted untouched to the end zone for a 92-yard touchdown return.

As the crowd erupted, Ator just laughed and shook his head. You couldn't have written a better script.

Final score: Bozeman 21, Great Falls 0.

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