THREE FORKS — When Connor Sullivan accepted a teaching position at Three Forks High School in 2019, the former Montana State tight end was eager to get involved with the football team. But at the time he was really only interested in being an assistant coach.
"I said I wanted to help out with football," said Sullivan, an Ennis native who in 2016 stamped his name into the Cat-Griz rivalry by hauling in a game-sealing 26-yard catch on fourth down in the final two minutes to help kick start a run of four straight rivalry wins for MSU.
"About a week and a half before the season, they didn't have a head coach," continued Sullivan, who took over for previous coach Matthew Bakken. "So I kind of stepped in and I've had a great staff around me and we've built this thing up the last five years."
After some lean seasons in his first four years at the helm — a span that saw the Wolves go winless in the Southern B — the Wolves turned a corner this season.
Three Forks (6-3 overall, 3-2 in conference play) is playoff-bound for the first time since the 2018 postseason, when the Wolves were ousted by Missoula Loyola 54-14 in the opening round.
This will be the first trip to the playoffs for Sullivan and his entire team.
"It's a very cool experience, you kind of forget what it feels like," said Sullivan. "You can feel there's a different type of energy and different type of air for Saturday at 1 o'clock."
In their first-round game on the road against Malta, the Wolves have an opportunity to end another, much longer drought.
Three Forks hasn't won a postseason game in what's believed to be roughly 50 years. The Three Forks coaches weren't certain of the exact year but this much is certain: the last time the Wolves earned a victory in the playoffs was long before any of its current players — and maybe even their parents — were born.
"It's crazy," said senior wide receiver Colten Hayder. "It hasn't been done in who knows how long."
Hayder is one of Three Forks' nine seniors, a group that has played under Sullivan for the entirety of their high school careers. Their freshman, sophomore and junior years were filled with plenty of growing pains, but this past regular season — one that saw the Wolves put together a five-game winning streak — saw the investment and belief begin to pay off.
A big piece of the puzzle that fell into place this season was moving Shane Williams to quarterback, a position he hadn't played before.
"He was kind of like our Swiss Army Knife," said Sullivan. "He played O-line his freshman year because he was so strong. Then he played tailback. Then he played tight end.
"He's got great leadership attributes to him so we thought this year playing quarterback would be a great fit for him. We surrounded him with the right pieces and so far it's working out."
Williams has piled up 1,989 passing yards and 18 touchdown passes to go along with 1033 rushing scores and 12 touchdowns on the ground. He credits those numbers to the bond that he and his teammates have built these past four years, even when the wins weren't as plentiful.
"It's just our mindsets, how we've come together," said Williams. "This year we're definitely more of a brotherhood. And we work together a lot better than we have in the past years."
Three Forks is doing something that none of its current players have done before — preparing for a postseason contest. They'll be looking for that elusive playoff win to break a half-century drought. The stakes are high, but they're ultimately just glad to be practicing in late October.
"It feels pretty good to extend our season, especially my senior year," said Hayder. "Play a little bit more football before potentially it's all over."