When Jim Lawson and the Hot Springs Savage Heat kick off their Class C 6-Man championship game against Westby-Grenora in Plentywood on Saturday, one of their biggest fans will be 600-plus miles away in Charlo.
“I’ve been a fan of his since I left (Hot Springs),” said Chris Hess, the former Hot Springs athletic director and current Ennis football coach. “We’re friends, we coached together, I have a lot of respect for him. … We stay in touch and wish each other good luck. I catch up on film with his stuff and see what he’s doing. He’s about as obsessive of a coach as there is. That’s about all the conversation I have with him, is Xs and Os.”
Hess, who has guided the Mustangs to the Class C 8-Man championship against Charlo, coached with Lawson when the two were coordinators on the staff of the Plains-Hot Springs co-op. Lawson coached the defense, and Hess handled the offense as they helped Plains-Hot Springs reach the Class B playoffs in 2009.
“We actually lived about a mile apart, so we spent a lot of time together,” Hess said. “That co-op, we would commute to Plains every day and spend a lot of hours talking football.”
“We still stay in touch, we’re friends,” Lawson said. “I’m really happy for him that he’s playing in the state championship game, as well. I learned a lot from him, and he’s a good coach.”
The Plains-Hot Springs co-op dissolved a couple years later, and Hot Springs started its own program back up in 2011. Lawson took the reins of the Savage Heat and led the team to the 6-Man quarterfinals in its first year.
Hot Springs won the program’s first and only championship in 2012, a 77-0 romp over Big Sandy. That margin makes for the most lopsided championship game in Montana high school football history. While he admits this year’s team has some similarities to that 2012 team, Lawson notes some differences.
“I think this team probably lacks a little bit of size we had in 2012,” Lawson said. “But I think our fundamentals are a little bit better. But both teams had a lot of speed, and we’re pretty much doing the same things now as we did back then.”
Many of those things, especially on offense, Lawson learned – and borrowed – from Hess. Both coaches have teams that are perennial playoff contenders. It takes balance in all three phases of the game to play deep into November, but their teams are regularly among the highest-scoring in their respective classes.
Hot Springs this year has outscored opponents 826 points to 59, including 213 to 27 in three playoff games
Ennis has similarly dominant numbers, outscoring opponents 732-112 overall and 168-20 in the playoffs.
“During those years (at Plains-Hot Springs), there was a lot of collaboration,” Hess said. “I’m sure there are lots of concepts I don’t even realize I use of his. I bounced ideas off him, and I think he bounced ideas off me, as well. … For sure, there’s still a lot of things that came from that relationship that you use every day.”
At a minimum, the coaches will have fans across the state when Saturday’s championship games kick off.
“We’ve been texting back and forth throughout the season and the playoffs,” Lawson said. “I wish him luck every week, and he does the same for me. It’s pretty cool to have connections and friends like that, that find themselves in these situations where they’re playing in the championship game.”