FLORENCE — It had been so long since Florence hosted a playoff game that it was tough to track down a definitive number to the drought on the sidelines of the Falcons' home field Saturday.
The long-awaited playoff appearance on friendly soil made Florence's 59-7 Class B first-round victory against Shepherd all the sweeter, though. Florence coach Pat Duchien actually pointed to the scoreboard in his post-game speech, imploring his team to savor the win just a little longer.
"I've heard a few different stories," Duchien said of the infamous and somewhat mysterious home-playoff game absence. "Let's just say it's been way too long."
Montana High School Association records date back to the 2000 season, and Florence hadn't hosted a first-round game since then. A 1998 Missoulian article reporting former coach Dick Gilder's retirement showed the Falcons had won the district title in 1996.
If that number holds, it counts 23 seasons since Florence has played a playoff game in friendly confines.
And the 2019 Falcons didn't disappoint a hungry home crowd clad in maroon and gold.
Senior quarterback Colby Kohlman took Florence's first play from scrimmage 47 yards for a touchdown to give the Falcons a quick 7-0 lead. It was the first of three 40-plus yard touchdown runs for the signal caller on Saturday.
Kohlman also threw three touchdowns and added an interception from the safety position, one of five picks for a stingy Florence defense that finished with seven total takeaways.
"...The boys were just completely locked in and what's nice to see in our program now is that their expectation is to win," coach Duchien said. "Whoever we face going forward, how we're striking, they're going to have a tough game on their hands."
Looking forward means a date with defending Class B champion Fairfield, 41-13 first-round winners against Townsend on Saturday. The No. 1-ranked Eagles improved to a perfect 9-0 overall with the win.
Looking back at Florence's first-round win, though, the No. 5 Falcons (7-2) — even as underdogs on paper next week — sure look like a force to be reckoned with in the State B playoffs.
The Falcons led 29-6 after the first quarter and they turned on the running clock with 3:52 remaining in the first half. That score came on Kohlman's third touchdown run of the half, a dash that chewed up two-thirds of the field.
The 66-yard scoring scamper gave Florence a 42-6 lead.
"All the work our guys have been putting in all season and how our line has been able to step up against bigger guys, it's been crazy," Kohlman said. "I love seeing them do their work and it makes my job (easy)."
Kohlman created big plays through the air, too. His third of the game came on a screen pass to senior running back Eli Christiansen, who navigated the bulk of the 21-yard score to extend Florence's lead, 56-6.
Kohlman also delivered early while the game was still somewhat in reach. The senior connected on a 64-yard touchdown pass one drive earlier to sophomore Blake Shoupe, putting Florence ahead 36-6 after a Caden Zaluski point-after kick. Shoupe, who had to come back for the ball in the middle of the field, broke a tackle from there and got a crucial downfield block from fellow sophomore receiver Luke Maki. That sprung Shoupe the remaining last few remaining yards to the end zone.
"That was a great block (from Maki). If he wasn't out there I don't know if I would've made it," said Shoupe, who added a pick-six that gave Florence a 14-6 lead in the first quarter. "...We've just all come together as one big family, worked hard and pulled it off. We're looking forward to next week."
Maki was rewarded for his blocking assist on Florence's first drive of the second half. The sophomore tight end high-pointed a long pass from Kohlman, and Maki broke a tackle to complete the 50-yard scoring pitch-and-catch.
"You put Shoupe and Maki out there and they've just gotten more and more mature as the year goes along," Duchien said of his underclassmen receivers. "Their FBI — their football intelligence — it's becoming off the charts for sophomores.
"Then you start throwing guys like Levi Posey in there and Jared Pallo and Jeron McNair for sophomores — and I'm forgetting a few — ... We have a lot of weapons."
Posey, for his part, recovered a muffed punt on the Shepherd 5-yard line in the first quarter that set up an Aiden Tollefson touchdown run just before the first quarter's end. He also had an interception negated by a pass interference penalty.
Sophomore Jonny Chamberlin added a pair of interceptions and senior Jacob Round added a pick as well. Zaylen Munn's 85-yard kick return in the first quarter accounted for Shepherd's (4-5) only scoring, making it just a 7-6 Florence lead less than a minute into the game.
But the Florence special teams units made up for the one lapse with a pair of recoveries and a 31-yard field goal from Zaluski in the fourth quarter, capping a run of 52 unanswered points by the Falcons.
"They just played harder. They wanted it — ain't nothing else to it," Shepherd coach Chris Dixon II said. "They came to play, they wanted it, they were hungry and they got it. And they didn't just beat us, they beat the brakes off of us."
Simply put, Florence was firing on all cylinders — fitting for a long-overdue homecoming.