Coach Jim Lawson has created a 6-Man football juggernaut at Hot Springs. (MTN Sports photo)

Troy Walters knows his Westby-Grenora football team has its hands full in the Class C 6-Man championship game against Hot Springs.

The undefeated and top-ranked Savage Heat established themselves as the team to beat in the class during the regular season with a high-scoring offense and stingy defense. To a degree, Walters and the Thunder are just happy to be here.

“I don’t know if you can slow (Hot Springs) down,” Walters said. “They are head and shoulders above everybody. They’ve got talent in all six positions on offense, all six positions on defense. We’re just hoping to compete. … Hopefully in the end, the result goes our way, but they’re a great team and Jim Lawson has a great program going.”

Lawson has led Hot Springs’ juggernaut since the school broke away from a co-op with Plains in 2011. Since then, the Savage Heat have been a perennial power in Montana’s smallest classification, reaching the pinnacle in 2012 with a 77-0 win over Big Sandy in the state championship.

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The 2016 team has drawn comparisons to that team from four years ago, and Lawson said it’s not that far-fetched.

“There are some similarities, but there are a lot of differences, too,” Lawson said. “I think this team probably lacks a little bit of size we had in 2012, 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.”

“The film that we have,” Walters said, “we’ve been comparing it – we played them two years ago in 2014. We’ve been watching a lot of that tape. They were running the same offense, same defense. Jim’s created a great system. They’re running it all the way through. Everything is such clockwork: the way they step, the way they read, the way they run their patterns, the way they block. I look at the gurus of 6-Man football – you start with Rod Tweet at Geraldine-Highwood, your next breath is Jim Lawson.”

Lawson has created a machine at Hot Springs – the Savage Heat have won the Western Division each of the past five seasons, including this year, and have advanced to at least the quarterfinal round of the playoffs every season since joining the 6-Man ranks in 2011 – but a machine runs only as smoothly as its operators.

Trevor Paro, Montana’s record-setting touchdown scorer whom Walters said, “could play at any division in Montana high school sports – 6-Man to (Class AA), he could be a stud,” gets the headlines. But Hot Springs is far from one-dimensional.

Fellow senior captains Kane Lawson, Blaine Carr and Wyatt Carr have had outstanding seasons, and Marco Degel has come up big, too, especially in these playoffs.

But Westby-Grenora, which has its own run of success since launching the co-op in 2012, is not to be underestimated. The Thunder are no strangers to the 6-Man playoffs – they’ve qualified every year of the co-op and advanced to the 2014 state championship.

They employ a unique spread offense that relies heavily on quarterback Jeremiah Paine and standouts Daulton Holecek, Kade Guenther and Brian Field. Holecek, Guenther and Field are the only two-way starters for the Walters, who also said he starts four freshmen – two on offense and two on defense.

“We’re obviously focusing on their speed guys,” Jim Lawson said. “They’ve got some great athletes. That spread offense of theirs is really a tough one to prepare for. They really do some great things with what they’re doing there, trying to create mismatches and create a lot of confusion with the defense. We’re trying to get organized right now, trying to make sure we get kids in the right spot, so we don’t make mistakes.”

Westby-Grenora avenged its season-opening loss to Bridger in last week’s semifinal round, handing the Scouts their first loss of the season, while Hot Springs ran past Valier, 58-8, in another lopsided victory. The 50-point margin was Hot Springs’ second-closest game of the season.

The 6-Man championship game kicks off Saturday at 1 p.m. The game is being played at Plentywood, as Montana High School Association rules require state championship games to be played in the state. Westby-Grenora, the host team, plays its home games at Grenora, N.D.

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