VALIER — The 2016 season was an incredible ride for the Valier Panthers football team. The Panthers finished the regular season perfect against the Northern division for the first time in 30 years and made a run to the 6-Man semifinals, falling to eventual state champion Hot Springs.
But that was last year. And head coach Eric Watson is making sure his team is aware that the slate is wiped clean in 2017.
“We had a great season last year, but at the end it was all last year,” Watson said. “Any accolades we got or games we won were all last year. Now it starts from scratch”
And while the records are reset in 2017, the Panthers roster looks to be one of the best in the state. Valier boasts eight seniors in 2017, including senior receiver and defensive end Colten Curry, who verbally committed to play Division I football for the Montana Grizzlies in June.
Curry, a 6-foot-7 wide receiver and defensive end, is believed to be the first 6-Man player signed by the Grizzlies since at least 2000. He follows in the footsteps of his father Scott Curry, who starred at Montana from 1995-98 before becoming a sixth-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2000.
“It was the biggest moment of my life,” said Colten. “It was exciting to be able to do that. I grew up a Griz fan because of my dad’s history. Now I can just worry about (playing), instead of worrying about (recruitment).”
Coach Watson believes the move could open doors for future Valier athletes as well as other from the 6-Man ranks.
“I’ve always said all along, I’ll take any of these kids and run them with the (Class) AA kids,” Watson said. “Colten is just as fast and just as big as some of those kids. And there’s a pile of them. Any of my eight seniors, I’ll put up against an 8-Man or Class B or A or AA player. They shouldn’t be discounted because of where they go to high school.”
The Panthers did lose two all-state players in Isaac Ramos and Colton Wheeler to graduation, but several underclassmen have stepped in at fall camp without missing a beat.
“They just play with heart,” said senior quarterback Koltin Christiaens. “Usually on the first day freshmen don’t really talk, but these guys aren’t shy. They go 100 percent every time.”
For years, the Panthers were under the radar, but this year they’re not sneaking up on anybody. They’re considered one of the best teams in the always-competitive North. Now they have to go out and prove they belong.
“I respect the other teams and I respect that they’re looking at us,” said senior Dustin Steele. “But we were the same way last year, just out to get them, so we got to just stay true to what we were.”
The seniors believe the bar has been set after last year, and a return trip to the semifinals is among their many goals. But teams from North Star, Sunburst, Heart Butte, Geraldine-Highwood and other division rivals stand in their way.
“It’s a tough league,” Watson said. “There are eight teams that can run the table at any given time, so we’re living a game at a time and a week at a time, not looking down the stretch.”
Valier opens the season on the road, Friday Sept. 2 at Lincoln.