Helena High quarterback Kaleb Winterburn completes a pass during practice. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

Summer’s over.

The high school football season kicks off Friday, and every class is eligible to begin playing games. While some teams opted to wait until September to play their first games, nobody had to (like in years past) this year.

Friday doesn’t have a full schedule, but there are 37 games – six in Class AA, seven in Class A, 11 in Class B, nine in 8-Man and four in 6-Man. There are another 16 games scheduled for Saturday – one each in Classes A and B, and seven each in the 8-Man and 6-Man ranks.

Here are some things to watch this weekend:

  • Just now entering his junior season at Billings Senior, Gabe Sulser is one of the most talked about players in Montana. He busted on to the Class AA scene as a freshman and followed that season up with a spectacular sophomore campaign. Generously listed at 5-foot-10, Sulser is a dynamic weapon in the Broncs’ high-powered offense. His speed, quickness and elusiveness earned him the nickname “White Lightning” this summer at a football camp, and major Division I programs have taken notice. Senior is one of the preseason favorites in Class AA, and Sulser – on both offense and defense, where he’s a starting cornerback in the Broncs’ vaunted secondary – is a big reason why.
  • With Missoula Hellgate opting to play a junior varsity schedule, there are only six games per week on the Class AA slate. But all six season-opening games – Butte at Billings Skyview, Kalispell Glacier at Helena, Helena Capital at Billings West, Great Falls High at Missoula Big Sky, Great Falls CMR at Kalispell Flathead and Billings Senior vs. Missoula Sentinel at Washington-Grizzly Stadium – offer intriguing storylines. The best of the bunch looks like it might be Glacier-Helena, though, as both teams figure to be in the top half of the AA standings all season. The cross-state rivalry between Capital and West is always fun, too.
  • Butte Central and Belgrade are annual Class A playoff teams, but both enter the 2016 season with something to prove. The Maroons won the Southwestern A in 2014 only to lose a heartbreaker in the state championship to rival Dillon. They returned with a solid 2015 advancing to the quarterfinals, but expectations are just as high – if not higher – this season. Even though Belgrade had an up-and-down 2015 season, the Panthers still ended up qualifying for the playoffs. It was a disappointing first-round exit, though, and both teams are looking for more in 2016.
  • Havre and Whitefish regularly open their seasons against each other, including last year’s much ballyhooed matchup between quarterbacks Dane Warp and Luke May. Warp set all sorts of individual records for the Blue Ponies, but it was May who got the last laugh, guiding Whitefish to the Class A state championship. Both are gone now – Warp to play college basketball at Carroll College and May to throw javelin at Minnesota – and there will be plenty of other new faces when the teams to meet.
  • There might not be another conference that saw a mass exodus of talent quite like District 5B. Gone are Division I athletes like Manhattan’s Alec Nehring, Townsend’s Jace Lewis and Jefferson’s Trase LeTexier and Jered Padmos, apparently leaving the conference race wide open this season. The first week can never tell the whole story, but it’ll be interesting to watch Manhattan versus Florence, Three Forks versus Red Lodge, Whitehall versus Big timber and Jefferson at Ronan. Townsend kicks off its season next week at Missoula Loyola.
  • One of the more intriguing games on the Class B schedule pits Glasgow against Colstrip in a nonconference matchup. The Scotties lost in the first round of the playoffs last year, and they’ll be in the mix in District 2B again. Colstrip advanced to the quarterfinals last year, losing to eventual champion Fairfield, in coach Stacey Yates’ first season on the sideline. The Colts graduated some key pieces off that team and will be reloading in the always-competitive District 3B.
  • Three teams – Denton-Geyser-Stanford, Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap and Lone Peak – are making the move from 6-Man football to 8-Man. It certainly changes the balance of power in the 6-Man ranks, where DGS won the state title last year and Lone Peak and Hobson-Moore-JG both reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs. But how does it shape things in 8-Man? All three teams make their 8-Man debuts (or returns to 8-Man, if your memory allows you to recall Denton and Hobson fielding 8-Man teams years ago) this weekend with Lone Peak hosting Harlowton and Hobson-Moore-JG going to Park City on Friday and DGS visiting Gardiner on Saturday.
  • Two perennial 8-Man powers from opposite sides of the state came up with an agreement to meet in the middle for a season-opening nonconference game: Charlo and Fairview will meet in Cascade on Saturday. The Vikings and Warriors figure to be contenders in their respective conferences, maybe even favorites after the two met in last year’s quarterfinals.
  • Box Elder went on the road to knock off Hot Springs in the 6-Man semifinal round last year, earning a 42-40 win and the program’s first-ever berth in the championship. Hot Springs will try to return the favor on Saturday – granted, the game carries much less meaning – making the trip to Box Elder. The teams will certainly look a lot different than they did last fall, but it’s always exciting when playoff opponents face each other the next season. Box Elder, too, will be playing for much more than just football.

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