FLORENCE — Small-town athletes make up some of the hidden gems in Montana's high school football scene, but offers and commitments can be few and far between.
But at Florence-Carlton High School, the Falcons are doing something rarely seen. Thanks to their success this past fall, Florence is sending five players to the next level to play college football next fall.
And it was a perfect ending for Florence's seniors in the fall, as the Falcons went a perfect 12-0 and capped it off with a Class B state football championship, the school's first since 1977. Florence defeated Bigfork 42-0 in the title game.
"It just speaks to the hard work that we put in," senior Tristan Pyette said. "The weight room last year was non-stop, the most competitive environment you'd be in. It was competitive but if you fail it's like, you'll get it next time. All of us just put in as much work as we could. All the hard work paid off."
Now, the Falcons are reaping the rewards in more ways than one. That includes sending five players from this senior class into the college football ranks, a number typically unheard of at the Class B level. Florence had 11 seniors on their roster this season on a team that had 25-30 full-time varsity players.
Three will stay in state at the NAIA level, including Pyette who will head to Carroll College in Helena. Caden Zaluski and Blake Shoupe will continue to be teammates and they'll head to Butte to play for Montana Tech.
Two are headed to the Division I level, as Ethan Abbott will head to Bozeman to play for Montana State, while Luke Maki was appointed to the United States Air Force Academy back in January, where he will also play football. MTN Sports caught up with Maki during the season about his dream to follow in his family footsteps of attending a military academy.
Florence's progression as a program and playoff contender was gradual over the last four years, and this senior class was instrumental in building it up. The Falcons had back-to-back first-round exits in the postseason in 2017 and 2018, but made the second round in 2019 before advancing to the semifinals in 2020.
All of that led up to last fall's state title.
"To be a part of this program for four years, coming in as a freshman, (it was a) super crazy feeling going to play at the Griz stadium my first game," Shoupe said. "It's crazy how it transforms throughout the years."
"Football made school way better," Zaluski added. "Just all of the spirit weeks and everything and just coming down on this field or that field everyday just grinding made it 10 times better. Just looked forward to coming out to practice everyday and some days were harder than others but we just fought through it and it was really fun."
And each player traveled a different path. Abbott moved to Montana from Maryland halfway through high school, and grew with his classmates as they continued their climb up the football ranks.
"It was definitely nice moving to a smaller town," Abbott said. "I instantly got right into the football program because (I was the) biggest guy coming into a new school in a small town and it was an amazing experience. The coaches were awesome, all of the players were nice and it was really easy to adapt."
It's a special accomplishment for the group, with each player excited to see their teammates move on and represent Florence at the next level.
"It's awesome. I feel like Class B generally doesn't get a whole lot of respect necessarily because the competition can be spotty every now and then," Maki said. "Sometimes it's really good years, sometimes it's really bad and colleges don't always give us the same look as AA or A and so to see four of my teammates be able to go on to that level and get the respect that they deserve is awesome."