EUREKA — For some high school football teams, a 6-3 season with a playoff berth would be considered a cause for celebration.
For the Eureka Lions? Not so much.
After two consecutive Class B state championships in 2016 and 2017, the 2018 campaign was a regression in some ways for the Lions. They went 6-3 and lost to Manhattan in the opening round of the Class B playoffs.
But for seniors like Hank Dunn and Jake Kindel, two guys who started as freshmen on Eureka’s 2016 team, last year left a lot to be desired.
“We definitely had a sour taste in our mouth. We went 6-3 and we hated it,” Dunn said. “It was the worst feeling we’ve had in my four years of high school because we didn’t win state. Going out in the first round, I’d say it was just embarrassing for us.
“As a program we needed to step it up and I think we really did.”
So far, Eureka, which is ranked No. 2 in the MontanaSports.com high school football poll , is 5-0 and has outscored opponents 224-40. The Lions are coming off a 34-14 victory over Florence last Friday night. Eureka will host Missoula Loyola on this Friday.
Some improvements from last year have just come from experience and that was evident in the game against Florence. Eureka struck first but Florence responded in the third quarter with a pair of touchdown passes that went 61 and 74 yards.
Rather than get rattled by those explosive plays, the Lions adjusted and locked down the rest of the way, something that might not have happened a season ago.
“Our response to other teams scoring is way better than last year,” Kindel said. “Last year, hate to admit it, but we kind of hung our heads a little bit when they scored and coming off that sophomore year when teams hardly scored on us. Getting used to people scoring and having to rebound and adjust off that is a big deal.”
As what happens in high school sports, the Lions were hit hard by graduation and staples of the program leaving after all that success in 2016 and 2017. But last year the injury bug hit as well. Chet McCully, now a senior, was coming off an all-state campaign as a sophomore but tore his ACL in the first game of the 2018 season.
His health and production have been a big reason why the Lions find themselves back in the mix atop the Class B hierarchy.
“It definitely sucked watching everybody get to play and I just wanted to be out there and helping and playing, too, but it’s fun being back,” McCully said. “It’s our senior year. We were the first team in sixth grade to have a team. It’s felt nice to be back with my brothers and playing again.”
The Lions utilize a strong running game offensively. Kindel pointed to the team’s linemen as a group of guys who worked hard over the offseason and grew as players. Behind them, the Lions average 289 yards on the ground per game so far this season.
And McCully’s impact is obvious. Through five games he has 67 carries for 496 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also has a pair of catches for 24 yards and one more score.
Part of that is his talent. Another factor is a drive that was fueled in the season he was forced to miss.
“It definitely made me want it more,” McCully said.
And as far as similarities between that 2017 season and this year, McCully said the togetherness of this year’s squad stands out.
“We had a lot of close friends then and of course last year but it feels really similar to that (this year),” McCully said. “It feels like a bunch of gears going with each other and it’s fairly smooth.”
Dunn has been a defensive starter ever since his freshman year and started as a receiver during his sophomore year in 2017. In 2018 he was tasked with replacing former Eureka standout and current Montana Grizzly Garrett Graves at the quarterback position. There were growing pains, sure, but this season Dunn has completed 40 of 79 pass attempts for 680 yards and six touchdowns to three interceptions. He’s added 523 yards on 40 carries for six touchdowns on the ground as well.
He said Graves worked out with him heading into his junior year and from there he has grown into thriving at the position.
“It’s been incredible and so much from Year 1 to Year 2. It’s been such a big jump for me,” Dunn said. “Just going from junior year to senior year, I just think I’ve grown physically, mentally, and as a leader and I think it’s shown with our offense. We’re scoring a lot more points and we’re clicking a lot better this year.”
Kindel has been another core member as one of the team’s leading rushers and receivers. He has 44 carries for 270 yards and five touchdowns and has also caught 16 passes for 186 yards and another score. He also leads the team on defense with 50 total tackles.
Kindel said this season has been all about proving the Lions weren’t going anywhere after last year.
“I like that we’re not as big as those teams before but we’re still competing and we’re still taking it to these teams who are a lot bigger,” Kindel said. “The fight that the guys have this year is insane compared to the years before. I feel like we have a chip on our shoulder. People look over us and think that we’re not the big guys and we’re not what we were before but we know what we can be.”
Seniors Austin Sartori, AJ Pacella, Cory Chaney and Chance Muller have also played a key role in Eureka’s success this year.
The Lions sport 11 seniors this year. And for eighth-year head coach Trevor Utter, he sees a lot of similarities between this year’s team and the 2017 squad. He specifically highlighted that the team has been sound on both sides of the ball, while mentioning just how tough the defense has been against opponents.
Plus, the maturity of having a senior-laden team helps.
“So far it’s worked well but the competition is going to get stiff here. Friday night is going to tell us a lot about us because Loyola is a good football team and they’re huge. So that’s going to be a really good test for us," Utter said.