Kalispell Glacier's Drew Turner (32) became the third Wolfpack player to commit to Montana or Montana State this year. There are already nine former Glacier players on the rosters at UM and MSU. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

KALISPELL – In the 11 years of its existence, Kalispell Glacier has developed into one of the premier Class AA football programs in Montana.

Prior to this year’s 0-3 start, the Wolfpack have advanced to the semifinal round of the playoffs six consecutive years. They’ve played in three of the past four championships, winning the program’s first state title in 2014.

And they continue to churn out Division I football players, including three on this year’s team: Mark Estes, Jackson Pepe and Drew Turner. Estes, a transfer from Drummond, has committed to play with the Montana State Bobcats, while Pepe and Turner have offered their commitments to the Montana Grizzlies.

There are currently nine former Wolfpack standouts on the rosters at MSU and UM, the most of any single Montana high school.

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“They got a great staff there (at Glacier),” said running back Noah James, one of six Glacier graduates at MSU. “It’s a high school program with a college-like mentality. (Coach Grady) Bennett has built that kind of from the ground up. That was kind of his ambition, was to be a step ahead from where the rest of the state’s at, as far as the way they lift and (prepare). The kind of energy and time that they put into that, it shows: wins and obviously players coming here.”

James has a couple of his high school teammates alongside him in MSU’s backfield in fellow running back Logan Jones and quarterback Brady McChesney. Josh Hill lines up on the defensive side, where freshmen Tadan Gilman and Jaxen Hashley will eventually join him.

Safety Evan Epperly has played his way into the starting lineup with the Grizzlies, and defensive lineman Andrew Harris and kicker/punter Brandon Purdy provide depth.

“I think Grady’s done a really good job and not just because they’ve won football games,” said second-year MSU head coach Jeff Choate. “You talk about culture, he’s embedded a culture up there that these kids are high-character kids, hard-working, disciplined. They’re good football players.”

“Coach Bennett really preaches the family aspect of football and also creating the culture there,” McChesney added. “I think Monday practices, after practice, we would have kind of a team meeting, or a ‘Pack Meeting’ they’d call it, and just talked about life lessons and what can really develop you as a football player and as a person. I think that really has molded me and the rest of the Glacier guys here, just the incredible coaching over there. I think they do a really good job of preaching the fundamentals and the attention to detail that is necessary to be successful in this football game.”

Helena High football coach Tony Arntson (left) talks with Kalispell Glacier coach Grady Bennett (right) before Friday’s game at Vigilante Stadium in 2016. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

“Obviously we’ve been blessed with a lot of talent,” said Bennett, who has been the head coach at Glacier since its inception. “I like to give a lot of credit to my coaching staff, too. They do a fantastic job of developing players. … No. 2: Just really hopefully building a culture and providing an experience that these guys love playing the game.”

Bennett is widely regarded as one of the best football coaches in Montana. He’s been coaching for 27 years and was the head coach at Kalispell Flathead before taking over the new program at Glacier in 2007. The Wolfpack have gradually become an annual contender, first qualifying for the Class AA playoffs in 2009. They haven’t missed since and have advanced to the semifinal round every season since 2011.

A former Griz quarterback – he ranks fourth in program history for career passing yards – Bennett has pulled on his experience and contacts to help prepare his players for the next level.

“Our coaching staff in high school actually worked with Choate when he was at Washington, and so all the drills we do, all the tackling drills and stuff we do before practice and during practice, we were doing in high school,” Hill said. “It’s kind of nice, we get here and he’s talking about all these drills and we’re watching film, and I’m like, ‘This is the same stuff that we’ve been doing since I was in high school.’ It’s an easy transition.”

Bennett has built relationships with Choate and the MSU coaching staff, but he has a long history with the Grizzlies. Chad Germer, UM’s offensive line coach and run-game coordinator, was Bennett’s center in college. He’s coached against many of the guys on the Griz staff and continues to develop his bond with them as a color analyst on local TV broadcasts.

Despite those relationships – Bennett said he will “always be a Griz guy” – the Bobcats had seen more success recruiting Glacier players.

“You know what? Those guys (at Montana) just, they’re just not the best at recruiting the Montana boys,” Jones said. “That’s really all there is to it, because, for me, that’s what it came down to: They gave me the same offer to go there as they gave me here, but (the Bobcats) were way more interested and showed a lot more love toward me, and I knew this is where I belonged.”

“It’s something that I’ve talked real honestly with the Griz about,” Bennett said. “I’ve been very frank and very honest about the Cats doing a tremendous job of recruiting, doing some nice things in that area and not seeing that at times with the Griz. They have taken that really well and have done a great job in response, have started to do things really well for our guys. Both staffs do a great job now in our state.”

The rosters show it. Twelve former Glacier standouts project to the 2018 rosters at Montana and Montana State.

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