If Wibaux is to repeat as the 6-Man football state champion, the Longhorns will have to battle through a competitive field in the playoffs, which begin Saturday with eight first-round games.
Wibaux enters as the No. 2 seed out of the East after suffering back-to-back losses to Jordan and Westby-Grenora. Jordan, the 2018 runner-up, won the conference and gets the league’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs, which gives the Mustangs home-field advantage through at least the semifinal round.
The only team to which Jordan can travel: Shields Valley, the South’s No. 1 seed which owns home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Big Sandy (North) and Hot Springs (West) are the other two No. 1 seeds.
The East plays the North in the first round, while the South plays the West — except for one game, where the North’s fifth seed replaced the West’s fourth seed because of the unbalanced conferences — setting up some intriguing first-round matchups. Hot Springs hosts Harlowton-Ryegate, Westby-Grenora travels to Power-Dutton-Brady, Geraldine-Highwood is at Shields Valley, Denton-Geyser-Stanford visits Wibaux, Jordan hosts North Star, Bridger welcomes in White Sulphur Springs, Richey-Lambert makes the trip to Big Sandy, and Roy-Winifred travels to Noxon.
No. 1 seeds: Jordan (East), Shields Valley (South), Big Sandy (North) and Hot Springs (West).
Jordan has a bevy of Murnions, including Keenan and Edward, helping lead the way, while senior Emmett Gilbert and junior Aidan Jenkins are two to watch for Shields Valley. Kade Strutz and Brock Proulx are probably the biggest keys to the Pioneers’ success. They have plenty of help, though, from a deep and well-balanced team. Meanwhile, Brandon Knudsen, a Hot Springs senior quarterback/running back, is arguably the best player out of the West, and Jack McAllister helps anchor the Savage Heat defense.
Favorite: Big Sandy.
The Pioneers started the season with a championship-or-bust mentality and ended the regular season with the top spot in the MontanaSports.com power rankings. Big Sandy boasts everything a championship contender needs: size, speed, talent, depth and experience.
All that being said, the Pioneers aren’t a runaway favorite. The top tier of 6-Man teams includes Jordan, Hot Springs and Wibaux, with a few teams — like Westby-Grenora — already proving capable of upsetting a higher-ranked team.
Dark horse (No. 3 seed or lower): White Sulphur Springs.
The West brought only three teams to the playoffs — Hot Springs, Noxon and White Sulphur Springs — but it wouldn’t surprise if all three kept their first-round games competitive. White Sulphur Springs is a team that’s tasted recent success and is full of athletes capable of pushing higher seeds. The Hornets, the third seed out of the West, defeated Bridger, the South’s second seed, 62-18 back on Sept. 14.
Best first-round matchup: Westby-Grenora at Power-Dutton-Brady.
Westby-Grenora got an early statement win, running past Roy-Winifred 48-20 in Week 1. The Thunder since suffered losses to Big Sandy, Richey-Lambert and Jordan, three playoff teams with the ability to make noise in November.
Power-Dutton-Brady, meanwhile, somewhat quietly put together an undefeated season until the North championship against Big Sandy, a game the Pioneers won 35-0.