BILLINGS — Eight years ago, after a particularly lopsided loss to Billings Central, Laurel football coach Mike Ludwig stood outside the locker room and discussed his team’s growing futility against its arch nemesis.
“We’ve got the toughest dang team in Class A 15 miles away,” Ludwig said of the Rams. “They’ve set the bar.”
The look on Ludwig’s face was one of discontent. Central not only had the upper hand that Friday night in 2012, but it had also established clear supremacy in the annual series between the longtime adversaries.
Between 2003 and 2018, Central ran off 19 consecutive victories against Laurel. Entering last week’s state championship game, the first of its kind in the 69-year history of the rivalry, the Rams held a decisive 56-17-1 edge.
Ludwig, a 1988 Laurel grad who took over as head coach prior to the 2002 season, was a mere 2-20 in his career against Central.
But history was flipped on its head on Saturday, as the Locomotives seized momentum with a slew of explosive plays and stout defense to subdue the Rams 34-0 and win their first championship in 18 seasons.
Understandably, the look on Ludwig’s face afterward was one of pure elation. He and the coaching staff made some key adjustments from Laurel’s regular-season loss to the Rams and the players executed the game plan without flaw.
The win certainly eases the sting of those previous shortcomings, right?
“I don’t know,” Ludwig said with a laugh. “That’s a tough question. It helps. There’s no doubt that it really, really helps. I hate reading in the newspaper where in the series we were like 56-17. I’m like, ‘Oh man. I didn’t realize it was that bad.’
“But I’m just going to stay in the moment right now and enjoy this win. I’m just going to enjoy this moment.”
The Locomotives won with a fast offense and stout defense.
With three touchdowns, senior wideout Jack Waddell was the linchpin. Perhaps his biggest play occurred on the opening drive of the third quarter with Laurel leading 7-0.
Waddell, lined up behind center, took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff, sprinted to the right, made a couple moves and ran unabated to the end zone for a 62-yard TD. It was then that Laurel took control.
Waddell transferred to Laurel from Livingston before his junior year and consistently proved his value, becoming the kind of player the Locomotives had trouble containing against Central in years past.
“We knew if we could get him a little crease that he can find some daylight and make people miss because he’s just so dang fast,” Ludwig said of Waddell.
“He has just been tremendous for our football team. I am super excited that he moved to Laurel and that he’s a Locomotive.”
Defensively, Laurel forced four turnovers, which included interceptions by Waddell, Shel Osborne and Kyson Moran. The Locomotives limited Central’s vaunted rushing attack to an average of 2.7 yards on 32 attempts and allowed just seven first downs.
It was just the third time the Rams were shut out in the long tenure of hall of fame coach Jim Stanton.
Laurel’s players were just as happy for Ludwig as they were for each other.
“It’s awesome. He’s a great coach and he’s worked super hard to get to this point,” said quarterback Eli Aby, who has committed to play football at Montana State. “For us to beat Central in the state championship, it’s awesome for us and for everybody.”
Despite the frustration, Ludwig was always gracious in defeat against Central. During the 19-game streak, the Locomotives suffered losses in every which way — from blowouts like 47-0 in 2004 and 54-0 in 2007 to heartbreakers like 23-22 in 2010 and 17-14 in both 2011 and 2014.
But in the biggest game in the rivalry’s history, Laurel was the superior team.
And Ludwig remained gracious in victory.
“I have a lot of pride in our school and our community,” Ludwig said. “I pretty much have lived in Laurel my entire life. I was over in Butte for four years, my first teaching job. But this is a little bit more special to me. I wore the same colors that these guys wore.
“And it’s not just me, it’s a lot of our staff, too. Most of our staff are guys that played for me, first of all, and guys that went to Laurel also. And I think that’s a cool thing.”
For LHS alums like offensive coordinator Matt Kimmet and fellow assistants Chris Smith, C.J. Edgmond, Jon Hicks and Brenan LeClair, the victory was just as sweet.
In spite of all the uncertainty and stress of a pandemic-filled year, the fall athletic season could not have gone much better for Laurel. The Locomotives had already captured state titles in girls golf, girls cross country and girls soccer, and winning the crown in football served as the ultimate exclamation point.
After years of frustration, Ludwig can finally take comfort knowing his Locomotives are now the toughest dang team in Class A.