BILLINGS — The Manhattan football team’s 20-6 loss to Eureka in last year’s Class B state title game carried a residual piece of bad news: if the Tigers got back to the championship game a year later, they would be the visitors. Montana High School Association rules forbid a team to be title host in consecutive years.
That scenario played out. Manhattan, the top-ranked Class B team in the 406mtsports.com rankings, has won all 11 games this season and will travel about 160 miles north to face No. 3 Fairfield (8-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Hitting the road might not seem fair, but the Tigers don’t care. They’re happy to still be playing, and they’re confident they can win their first state title in program history. Standing in their way is a team familiar with this stage, that knows how it feels to hold the first-place trophy.
“Our goal all season has been to get back in this game,” Manhattan coach Chris Grabowska told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com earlier this week. “The kids got a taste of it last year, found out what it takes to get to this part of the season. The kids were super hungry. They put in the time, the work, the effort to try to get back here. Now we’re in position.”
Manhattan has won each of its last 10 games by at least 11 points, most recently 43-18 over No. 6 Glasgow in the semifinals. The Tigers’ season opener was almost a loss — they prevailed 35-29 in overtime over now-No. 2 Florence-Carlton.
A rematch with the Falcons looked likely until Fairfield topped them last week, also in overtime. The Eagles won 8-6 thanks to a Miguel Perez touchdown, a two-point conversion and a Perez interception on Florence’s two-point try.
“I told the kids at the end of regulation, ‘Guys, we’re built for this. This is what we’ve been doing all year,’ ” said Fairfield first-year coach Greg Misner.
Unlike Manhattan, the Eagles have lots of close game experience. They beat Conrad 30-24 on Sept. 19, lost to now-No. 10 Red Lodge 28-20 on Oct. 9, defeated No. 4 Malta 14-6 a week later and edged Glasgow 14-8 the week after that.
Fairfield dealt with three cancellations due to COVID-19, against Harlem, Wolf Point and Big Timber. The Big Timber game, scheduled for Oct. 2, was supposed to be Fairfield’s homecoming. The Eagles learned Oct. 1 that the Sheepherders couldn’t play, and they scrambled to find an opponent. They ended up with a JV game against 8-Man Belt.
Manhattan played all of its scheduled games, but uncertainty caused by the coronavirus still wore on the team.
“We’re thankful to be playing at all this year,” said Grabowska, who has been Manhattan's head coach since 2014.
While the Tigers are playing for their first title, the Eagles will be trying to win their fifth. They beat Whitehall in 1982, Malta in 2011, Huntley Project in 2015 and Missoula Loyola in 2018.
At least one Eagle will be searching for his first championship. Misner spent the previous five years in Michigan, his home state. Before that, he coached at Fort Benton and Noxon. Neither of those teams reached the title game while Misner was coach.
Many people told Misner about the big shoes he was filling when he arrived in Fairfield this summer. His predecessor was Les Meyer, who took the superintendent job at Frenchtown in February after 23 seasons and eight state title appearances with the Eagles.
“I have made some tweaks to some things and done some things the way that I would like them to be done,” Misner said. “I didn’t reinvent the wheel, I just put a different rim on it.”
Defense has been Fairfield’s “heart and soul” this season, Misner said, and it will need to play well again against an opponent that has averaged 43.7 points per game this fall. Manhattan senior Caden Holgate is “a true dual-threat quarterback,” Grabowska said, and he has been supported by Tate Bowler, Gabriel Delgatty, Corban Johnson, Isaac Richardson, Toby Veltkamp and several others.
Grabowska knows Saturday’s opponent will be tough because of players like Perez, Daniel Faith and Gavin Mills. One good omen for Manhattan: first-year offensive coordinator Wes Kragt was the starting quarterback for Huntley Project in 2008. Those Red Devils beat Fairfield 41-28 for the State B title.
“He’s a great offensive mind, and I’m confident that he’s going to have our kids ready to go,” Grabowska said of Kragt. “Fairfield’s a great program. They’ve been successful for a lot of years. We’re excited to go up there and play them.”