BILLINGS – Billings Senior wasn’t perfect on Friday night, but the Broncs were good enough to wrap up their second consecutive perfect season, defeating Helena High 21-12 in the Class AA football championship at Daylis Stadium.
Senior, which went 13-0 to win the 2016 state title, finished off its 2017 campaign with a gritty championship performance. The Broncs overcame four turnovers and a blocked punt to survive against the upset-minded Bengals.
“This team, they battled all year. We knew from the beginning it was going to be a tough year,” said Broncs senior Gabe Sulser. “We knew we were going to have to grind some games out like that. That makes it more fun, I think. These guys are awesome. They never really get down. We get those tight situations, and I’m so proud to be a part of this team and to be a part of this program.”
Friday’s championship looked like it was destined to be business as usual for Senior in the first quarter. The Broncs built a 14-0 lead just three possessions into the game with Sulser and Blake Allred scoring early touchdowns.
After a nice kick return from Ben LaBeau to open the game, Senior needed just three plays and 56 seconds to score its first touchdown. Nolan Askelson hooked up with Sulser for a long pass play, setting up Sulser’s two-yard scoring run.
Garrison Poetzl ended Helena High’s ensuing drive with a third-down sack to force a punt, and Senior drove 85 yards on the next drive for the quick 14-0 lead. Allred punched it in from six yards out midway through the first quarter.
“You got to come up big in the right times,” Allred said. “Like (coach Chris) Murdock always says, ‘The rule of 63: There’s three downs, and you’ve got to play all your downs for six seconds,’ and that’s what we did (Friday), so it’s a good win.”
Helena High controlled the rest of the half, though, forcing three turnovers and blocking a punt to swing the momentum. Bengal Zach Spiroff intercepted Askelson in the second quarter, setting up Helena’s first score of the game – a 13-yard pass from Kaleb Winterburn to Zack Huth. The Bengals’ two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the deficit at 14-6.
Winterburn, who has committed to play college football at Montana State, closed the half with his second touchdown, connecting with Kyle Tabbert for a 12-yard score with 26 seconds remaining. The Bengals again failed to convert the two-point conversion, giving Senior a 14-12 lead at the break.
Senior was able to reverse its fortunes in the second half. Askelson, another Montana State commit, intercepted Winterburn on the Bengals’ first possession. An exchange of punts gave Senior the ball at the Helena 15-yard line, and Askelson was able to extend the Broncs’ lead to 21-12 with a five-yard touchdown run.
The Senior defense stood tall the rest of the way.
With Helena deep in Broncs territory, Sulser, a Montana commit putting the finishing touches on a stellar career, intercepted Winterburn in the end zone to squash one scoring opportunity. On the Broncs’ next snap, though, Helena forced and recovered a fumble to set up another short field.
Senior was up to the task again, forcing the Bengals to turn the ball over on downs at the Broncs’ 5-yard line.
From there, the Broncs salted the win away, wrapping up their second consecutive 13-0 season and extending their winning streak to 26 games. This was the first win in the streak by single digits.
“Actually, our freshman season we were about 1-9, so I had my doubts (about winning a state championship). But you stick through it, you go through the process, you never quit, you keep grinding with your brothers,” Askelson said. “We built a bond, we worked hard every offseason, every day. Hard work can get you here, and it did.”
Helena High ends the year with a 9-3 record.