MISSOULA — It’s playoff time once again for many schools across western Montana.
A returning champion, a state finalist and several semifinalist teams from a year ago all make their return to the playoffs, while other schools are dusting off their playoff aspirations for the first time in a few years.
With COVID-19 still spreading and hitting Montana hard, several coaches expressed concern that staying healthy — in normal years, that nearly always refers to injuries — is critical.
Many coaches also said they were surprised the season had even gotten this far and were deeply thankful for the ability to still be coaching this far into a strange year.
With that in mind, here are the teams heading into the playoffs this weekend. Of note, Class C 6-Man area teams Hot Springs and Noxon made the playoffs but were knocked out in the first round last week. All the other football classifications begin play Friday or Saturday.
Missoula Sentinel has a first-round bye and will begin its postseason next week.
Missoula Big Sky at Kalispell Glacier
As the six seed out of the west, the Eagles will have a tall task ahead of them when they travel north to face the Wolfpack and standout running back Jake Rendina.
Big Sky and Glacier played earlier this year, with the latter winning 36-18. Glacier led just 8-6 at halftime before building a huge lead in the third quarter as it put up 21 points in those 12 minutes.
“I think we felt we played a pretty good half when we were up there,” Big Sky head coach Matt Johnson said. “When we went back and looked at it on film, we felt like it definitely wasn’t our best game overall, and I think we’re playing a lot better.
“Our kids are pretty optimistic and excited for the opportunity.”
Sidney at Hamilton
It has been another fantastic year for the Hamilton Broncs.
Sitting at 9-0 (8-0 in non-forfeit games), Hamilton has been the top-ranked 406mtsports.com football team throughout much of the year and will host Sidney noon Saturday. The Broncs have made the state semifinals each of the past four seasons, falling in the state championship in 2017 and 2018.
They would very much like to break through this season.
“We’re thrilled to be in the postseason again,” Broncs head coach Bryce Carver said. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. We’ve been fortunate to be here a lot over the past seven, eight years.”
Hamilton hasn't won a state title since going back to back in 1997 and 1998. Coincidentally, that 1998 win was over Sidney. There's a deep respect by Carver for the Eagles, a school that has won nine state titles at the Class A level.
Sidney is 4-3 this season with losses to Billings Central, Laurel and Miles City, which are the first, second and third seeds out of the east this year. The Rams, who have a claim of their own as the undefeated top team in the state, beat Sidney by just three points.
“You know, I told our kids, I think it was 1998 the last time Hamilton and Sidney played,” Carver said. “I really had to harp on our kids that it’s a football team full of tough, tough kids that are coming over here to play. They are some tough, hard-nosed football players that are going to force us to play well to win.”
Frenchtown at Laurel
The third seed out of the Western A, Frenchtown will have its hands full with a very tough Laurel team.
The Locomotives have dropped just one game this year — a 28-14 loss to Billings Central — and beat Miles City, the defending state champion, 21-0 last week.
The Broncs are led by quarterback Wyatt Hayes, who has completed 94 of 185 passes this year for 1,205 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Defensively, Duncan Richardson has been a huge factor for the Broncs and has racked up 97 tackles this year. Teammate Tel Arthur, also a huge factor on offense, has 99 tackles.
Frenchtown has been in win-or-go-home mode for the past month, so these playoffs are nothing new. The Broncs went 4-0 after dropping to 3-2 with a loss to Hamilton, putting them on the playoff bubble while staring down a schedule of four teams who were 4-1, 4-1, 3-2 and 1-4 at the time.
"I’m proud of their resiliency," Frenchtown coach Ryne Nelson said ahead of the Broncs' game 6 p.m. Friday at Laurel. "Having to battle back in a game to win it, we’ve had a couple close ones we’ve been able to finish, and that’s huge. You never know how kids are going to react. Are they going to tuck their tails and turn in those situations, or are they just going to keep fighting? You just got to be the last one standing. So, definitely their never-quit resilient attitude and how they keep battling."
The Broncs' two losses came by 15 points to Hamilton in what was a one-score game in the final minutes and by seven points to Dillon in their season opener as they were 5 yards away from the end zone when the final whistle sounded. Those teams finished the year a combined 16-1.
Columbia Falls at Billings Central
The fourth seed in the West, Columbia Falls will make the trek over to Lockwood to play the Rams at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The Wildcats enter the playoffs 5-3 and have gone 2-2 after starting the season 3-1.
Led by standout quarterback Mason Peters, who has totaled almost 2,500 yards of offense this year, Columbia Falls will hope to play a strong game and pull the upset.
Conrad at Florence
With just a single loss to top-ranked and unbeaten Manhattan in overtime, the Florence Falcons are excited about a return to the playoffs.
They're a team that has played very well throughout the year and has exceeded the expectations of many around the state. Head coach Pat Duchien and his team, however, knew they had something good cooking before the season started.
“We’re trying to create a program where our expectations are high every year,” Duchien said. “I think what they did is exceed some of their own expectations by all the stuff they did during the summer and the regular season … a better way to put it might be that we exceeded some of the expectations put on us by others across the state.”
Led by Duchien’s son — Pat Duchien Jr. — the Falcons offense has put up plenty of passing yardage on the way to a 6-1 record. He’s completed 81 of 134 passes for 1,340 yards and 22 touchdowns while adding another 183 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Florence also has a stable of players that can run the ball and have had seven different players catch touchdowns this year. It’s an interesting collection of talent and a squad that is somehow still very young across its roster.
“You know, it starts with the offensive line, obviously, who have given us time to throw the longer routes that are intermixed with our shorts in our in our screen game,” Duchien said. “We have five pretty special receivers and a couple special running backs.
“I think we’re a tough team to prepare for.”
Bigfork at Malta
Led by 216 carries for 1,775 yards and 23 touchdowns from senior running back Cormac Benn, the Vikings will look to play spoiler as a three seed when they face the 5-1 and second-seeded Mustangs.
Bigfork fell to Eureka 28-0 last week and will look to shake off the loss.
“We’re gonna have to spread the ball around, which we didn’t really do a good job of last week,” Benn said. “I think we’ve really come together, and the kids are having a lot of fun.”
Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday in Malta.
Glasgow at Eureka
Winners of three of the past four Class B state titles, Eureka is no stranger to big games, playoffs or anything of the sort.
After a somewhat slow start to the season, the Lions went 5-1 over their last six games, with their lone loss coming 35-20 to Florence on Oct. 2. The Lions outscored their final three opponents 112-16.
It’s been the Eureka running attack that has led to many of those wins, as senior Gunnar Smith has 121 carries for 974 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Dual-threat sophomore quarterback Caleb Utter has scored 15 touchdowns this year — 12 on the ground and another three through the year. Eureka will have to protect the ball against a Glasgow team that has had an up-and-down season, but the game should be one of the best first-round Class B playoff matchups.
Loyola Sacred Heart at Fairfield
Despite a 0-4 record in actual competition, the Rams made the playoffs due to forfeit wins over Anaconda and Deer Lodge.
The Rams actually played Fairfield in the first game of the season, falling 22-0, their closest margin in a game this year. Loyola hasn't played in a football game since Oct. 9.
Belt at Flint Creek
Drummond-Philipsburg (Flint Creek) head coach Mike Cutler will hang up the whistle following the season, but not before his Titans prepare to give the legendary coach one more shot at an 8-Man state title.
The Titans, who are the top seed out of the west, will look to win a third title in a period of four years. Flint Creek fell a season ago in the state quarterfinals.
The first game of the playoffs for the Titans will kick off 1 p.m. Saturday in Drummond.
"That's a bitter pill to swallow for 12 months," Cutler said. "We have seven returning starters from that team and so just really a lot of experience from that team.
"They're ready to go for sure."
Led by running back Preston Metesh and quarterback (and Montana State commit) Kade Cutler, there's every reason to believe the Titans can make a deep run in the playoffs.
First, however, they will have to get past the fourth-seeded but 6-1 Belt Huskies. In the brutally tough Northern 8-Man conference, the only loss for Belt was a 50-24 defeat at the hands of 2019 state semifinalist Fort Benton.
"They're as good as any team in the playoffs, in my opinion," Cutler said. "It is what it is, and that's the way the bracket went, so we have to prepare for Belt.
"I picked Belt to be one of the top teams in the entire state at the beginning of the season ... I knew Belt would be there, I was just hoping in a different spot."
Simms at Thompson Falls
Thompson Falls, the second seed out of the Western 8-Man, expects a tough matchup in the first round.
The Blue Hawks have allowed just six points since their season-opening 38-32 win over St. Ignatius, but they've cleaned up plenty since then. On the year, Thompson Falls has outscored its opponents 388-38.
However, it wasn't enough to beat Flint Creek's point differential and grab the top seed. Interestingly enough, Flint Creek and Thompson Falls tried to put together a non-conference game but couldn't get it to fit the schedule.
"It would have been fun have a little scrimmage this season, just to see who the real No. 1, but we know they earned it," Thompson Falls head coach Jared Koskela said. "Credit to them."
In the Blue Hawks run-heavy offense, Roman Sparks, Kade Pardee, and Trae Thilmony have combined to rush the ball 234 times for 1,625 yards. Pardee and Sparks each have 16 rushing scores.
"The swagger these guys have, the culture that these guys are building, from last year to this year, I can just really tell the difference and are really starting to love the game of football," Koskela said.
St. Ignatius at Fort Benton
It'll be a tough draw for St. Ignatius, but the Bulldogs have been hot over their last five games, winning their way into the playoffs after an 0-3 start.
Now 5-3 and with tons of confidence, they're ready for their second-straight postseason appearance.
"It's great to be in the playoffs again, just impressed with the kids maturing and growing throughout the year and we’re pretty young team overall," head coach Tyler Murray said. "Those kids stepped into some leadership spots. This senior group is also the first group of kids I've had for four years, which is special."
Sophomore quarterback Kellen McClure has been tremendous for Mission, completing 102 of 157 passes for 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns against six interceptions.
It's a pass-heavy offense, and eight different players have recorded catches this season, led by John Komotios' 31 receptions for 402 yards.
Fort Benton has been one of the best teams in the state over the past couple years, but the Bulldogs are tough and of all the chances for 1-4 upsets, this might be the highest.
"Definitely a tough matchup, a very well coached team," Murray said. "It’s gonna come down to fundamentals, taking care of the ball and blocking and tackling. We have to do them at a higher level this week against a tough opponent, but those things are definitely key."
Clark Fork at Shelby
The three seed from the west, Alberton-Superior (Clark Fork) heads into the playoffs with a 6-2 record, with its only losses coming to the two higher western seeds — Thompson Falls and Flint Creek.
Bryan Mask has been a tremendous player for the Mountain Cats and has scored 29 total touchdowns this year.
A state finalist a year ago, Clark Fork will hope to put together another strong run through the playoffs.