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8-Man football playoffs preview: Competitive field awaits

Fort Benton
Posted at 4:00 PM, Oct 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-29 18:00:48-04

Of Montana's high school football classifications, none have undergone the changes the 8-Man ranks have seen over the past few years. Some teams have dropped down from Class B 11-man football and others have moved up from 6-Man football, altering the overall landscape at the 8-Man level.

It's created a more unpredictable playing field, but many of the traditional 8-Man powers will still be playing meaningful football on Halloween and potentially into November. Reigning champion Fairview is back in the 2020 bracket as the No. 2 seed out of the East after Scobey claimed the conference crown. Westby-Grenora, in its first season playing 8-Man football, and Ekalaka are also in out of the East.

Drummond-Philipsburg, which won the 2017 and 2018 titles, is back as the West's top seed by winning a tiebreaker over fellow unbeaten Thompson Falls. The Bluehawks are the second seed, followed by 2019 runner-up Alberton-Superior and relative newcomer St. Ignatius.

Fort Benton, a No. 1 seed a year ago that reached the semifinal round, is again back as the North's No. 1 seed this year. Shelby, Simms, Belt and Cascade are also in out of the North, which got a fifth team due to the unbalanced conferences. The South got only three teams in the bracket: Park City, Joliet and Ennis. Park City edged Joliet for the South's conference title after last year's champion, West Yellowstone, didn't even play varsity football this fall.

All eight first-round games are scheduled for 1 p.m. kickoffs Saturday with teams from the North playing teams from the West and teams from the South playing teams from the East. The lone exception is the game between Scobey and Cascade, as the Badgers got the North's fifth seed to replace the South's fourth seed. Click here for updated scores and pairings throughout the playoffs.

No. 1 seeds: Scobey (East), Park City (South), Fort Benton (North) and Drummond-Philipsburg (West).

Scobey dethroned Fairview to win the 8-Man East, which historically has usually been accompanied by a deep playoff run. The Spartans finished second in the conference last fall but were upset in the first round by Belt. This year's team started with a season-opening loss to Westby-Grenora but hasn't lost since, seemingly getting stronger as the season's progressed. Scobey got the Fairview monkey off its back with a 36-6 win on Sept. 25 and closed the season with three lopsided wins to carry plenty of momentum into the playoffs. The Spartans draw Cascade in the first round.

After last year's quarterfinal appearance as a No. 2 seed, Park City moved up a seed line this year. The Panthers were slow getting out of the gates to start the 2020 season, but, like Scobey, they've improved with each game. Their biggest game came on Oct. 9 when they rallied past Joliet for a 46-42 win that ultimately helped them claim the South. Park City gets Ekalaka, the No. 4 seed from the East, in the first round.

Fort Benton has looked the part of championship contender all season, and -- though their schedule missed some games due to COVID-19 cancellations -- the Longhorns made their path a little friendlier by winning the 8-Man North. Fort Benton will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and that includes the championship game, which will be played at a home site this fall after neutral-site games each of the past two years. The undefeated Longhorns host St. Ignatius in the first round.

The 8-Man West is bringing two undefeated teams to the playoffs: Drummond-Philipsburg and Thompson Falls. By virtue of a coronavirus-implemented tiebreaker, Drummond-Philipsburg gets the No. 1 seed in coach Mike Cutler's final season on the sideline. The longtime coach has another solid team looking to make a deep playoff run after last year's quarterfinal exit. This year's Titans have shut out four opponents and have only allowed 32 points on the season.

Favorite: Fort Benton.

There are three undefeated teams and seven one-loss teams, so Fort Benton is by no means a runaway favorite. There are appears to be plenty of parity in the bracket, which should result in a number of good games, even in the first round, which typically sets up the higher seeds for blowout wins. But with so many evenly matched teams -- and health always playing a key role at the 8-Man level -- it should be a highly competitive postseason.

So what gives Fort Benton an edge? The Longhorns boast the playoff experience from last year's semifinal run, a solid body of work this season and home-field advantage. That being said, it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if a team like Drummond-Philipsburg, Thompson Falls, Scobey or Shelby is celebrating a championship on Nov. 21.

Dark horse (No. 3 seed or lower): Westby-Grenora.

The Thunder acquitted themselves quite nicely to 8-Man football this fall, making an immediate statement with their 28-22 win over Scobey in the season opener. It was smooth sailing for a month until Westby-Grenora ran into Fairview, a longtime rival on the basketball courts. The Warriors, who have reloaded with a fresh-faced roster after last year's state title, silenced the Thunder with a 40-8 win. Westby-Grenora bounced back, though, to finish the season with two more wins, including a 34-8 win over Ekalaka in the regular-season finale to clinch the East's No. 3 seed.

Best first-round matchup: Alberton-Superior at Shelby.

On paper, this looks like it could be a competitive first round. The truth is that teams don't know a lot about teams outside of their leagues, because the coronavirus pandemic wiped out a lot of the non-conference games this year (it also canceled a number of conference games, as well).

Alberton-Superior and Shelby know each other from last year's playoffs, though, after the Mountain Cats dispatched the Coyotes in the first round. That game was in Superior, and the roles are reversed this year with Shelby hosting. Both offenses, especially Alberton-Superior's, have shown the ability to light up the scoreboard this year, but Shelby has played in a few more lower-scoring affairs. Who can dictate on Saturday?