RED LODGE — No current Red Lodge football player was alive the last time the Rams reached the state semifinals, and that underscores the length of the drought.
The last time the Rams advanced past the quarterfinals was 1995, according to coach John Fitzgerald. That was six years before anyone in Red Lodge’s class of 2020 was born. Fitzgerald was playing for Columbus at the time.
The semifinal hiatus ended on Saturday afternoon, when Red Lodge handled Malta 35-6 in the Class B state quarterfinals. The Rams (10-0), who are No. 3 in the 406msports.com Class B rankings, are one win away from their first ever state title game appearance.
“After that game, I think we have a really good shot of actually going to state and maybe winning it,” said Red Lodge junior wide receiver/defensive back Rizon Berndt.
Red Lodge struggled against unranked Bigfork (3-6) last week at home, escaping with a 28-25 win. Red Lodge prepared harder this week, said senior quarterback Austin Heimer, and it showed right away.
Heimer rushed for a 4-yard touchdown to cap the opening drive of the game. No. 6 Malta (8-2) went three-and-out on the next drive, and Heimer completed a 49-yard TD pass to junior Jay Jetmore on the first play of the following drive.
On Red Lodge’s next offensive play, senior Finnegan Davis found a hole up the middle and sprinted 60 yards to put the Rams up 21-0 with 5:33 left in the first quarter.
“We were ready for a better game,” Heimer said.
The score grew to 35-0 by halftime after a pair of touchdowns from Berndt.
First, Berndt returned an interception 66 yards, prompting a teammate on the sideline to remark, “I didn’t know you were that fast.”
“I’m happy to prove him wrong,” said Berndt, who scored on a 15-yard run later in the second quarter.
The Mustangs scored their only points on a 16-yard run from sophomore Rex Williamson late in the third.
“We lost to a great football team that has a chance to make a run for a title. There’s just not much weakness in Red Lodge’s team,” said Malta coach Nick Oxarart. “We had a great season. We hate to see it cut short, but our guys battled hard all season long.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys coming back.”
Not only did the Rams fail to make the semifinals in the past 24 years, they rarely got close. They ended a long playoff absence in 2011 and lost in the first round. One year later, they reached the quarterfinals, where Malta beat then 38-0. Red Lodge got back to the quarters in 2013 but failed to convert a two-point conversion and fell 34-33 to Missoula Loyola.
“That’s been in the back of my mind for a long time,” Fitzgerald said of the Loyola loss. “I’m not sure these kids remember that.”
This year’s Red Lodge players don’t have many positive moments to reflect on. Before last week, the Rams’ most recent playoff game was that 2013 quarterfinal loss. They went 2-7 last season.
A year of physical and mental growth has turned them into one of the best teams in Red Lodge history.
“It’s been something that’s been on the horizon,” Fitzgerald said. “To see where they came from three years ago, it’s special.”
The Rams’ toughest opponent of the year will come next week, when they’ll travel 500 miles to face No. 2 Eureka (10-0).
“It’s gonna be a good game,” Heimer said.