A Montana high school football season unlike any other concluded last weekend, as three more state champions were crowned.
Missoula Sentinel went unbeaten on its way to its first state title in 48 years. Laurel would not be denied a second consecutive year, as the Locomotives issued a beatdown to rival Billings Central. Manhattan and Froid-Medicine Lake captured state championships for the first time in their program histories, while Drummond-Philipsburg sent head coach Mike Cutler into retirement with his third title in four years.
Talk in the preseason in Class AA was centered around Sentinel and defending champion Bozeman. The Hawks, however, faltered in their season opener at Billings Senior without stud Kenneth Eiden IV, who missed a good chunk of the year recovering from injury. Had Eiden played, maybe Bozeman doesn't fall to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern AA, but Senior was more than deserving of the conference's second seed. The Broncs had the most electric player in the state, as Junior Bergen seemingly had highlight-reel runs multiple times in every game.
But Eiden's Bozeman squad and Bergen and the Broncs were unable to keep pace with Billings West, which will be a monster again in 2021, as the Golden Bears return a ton of pieces. West ran through the Eastern AA with an unbeaten record and gave Sentinel its closest game of the year, by far, in the title game at Daylis Stadium this past weekend. The star-studded Spartans, who are sending several players to the next level, proved to be one of the most dominant teams in recent Class AA memory, as they dominated both sides of the ball throughout the year. Sentinel averaged 45.2 points and gave up just 6.9.
West and Sentinel open up the 2021 season against each other, but don't be surprised if that's a precursor to another meeting in November.
In Class A, Laurel lost just one game all season, a 28-14 hiccup to Billings Central at home. The Locomotives seemed to hit another gear when the postseason rolled around, as Laurel gave up just 28 points in three playoff games, which included a 34-0 shutout of Central in the championship game.
Laurel's Eli Aby and Jack Waddell combined to form the most lethal quarterback-wide receiver tandem in Class A. Waddell spent just two seasons in Laurel after moving from Livingston prior to his junior year, but his connection with Aby blossomed this season. Laurel also found other ways to get the ball in Waddell's hand, including lining him up in the backfield to receive the snap. It's no surprise the Locomotives tried to feed Waddell as much as possible. With speed like his, all it takes is one touch to completely flip the momentum of a game.
The Locomotives are losing a big chunk of their playmakers going into 2021, but with guys like Beau Dantic and Shel Osborne still around, Laurel will likely be competing for the Eastern A crown again.
Not to be lost in the dominance of Laurel and Central in the Eastern A throughout the regular season are the outstanding careers of Miles City quarterback Carson Hunter and wide receiver Jayden Venable, who are all over the Class A career record books. Miles City nearly got back to its second consecutive title game but fell just short at Central in the semifinals.
Hamilton proved once again that it's among the elite Class A football programs. It didn't seem like the Broncs' offense missed a beat with Tyson Rostad taking over as the signal caller, and it certainly didn't hurt to have the golden hands of Jaiden Klemundt at his disposal. Hamilton will be in good hands next season as it will be in search of yet another regular-season conference title.
Manhattan won its first state title with a 23-6 win over Fairfield this past weekend, wiping away any disappointment that still lingered form last year's runner-up finish to Eureka. The Tigers were easily the most dominant team in Class B this season, as they picked up victories over the Western B champ Florence and the Northern B champ Fairfield.
The Tigers were led by do-it-all quarterback Caden Holgate, but he had plenty of weapons to sling it around to. Corban Johnson proved to be one of the best two-way players in Class B, and alongside him offensively was Tate Bowler, who was previously an all-conference performer for Belgrade. That two-headed monster gave opposing defenses fits, which also opened up running lanes for the Tiger backs.
The offense gets all the headlines, but defense was the backbone of Manhattan all season. The Tigers gave up 18 points to Glasgow in the semifinals, which was the most they'd allowed since their 35-29 win over Florence in the season opener. Speaking of the Falcons, they're going to be absolutely loaded next season. Watch out.
Manhattan carried plenty of emotion with it throughout the postseason as senior defensive lineman Cayl DeBoer was hospitalized by a serious injury midway through the year. It was only fitting that DeBoer received the program's first state title trophy on Saturday in Fairfield.
What a wild year in 8-Man football. Eventual state champion Drummond-Philipsburg had its season opener canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the Titans didn't miss a beat, as they steamrolled their way to a third state championship in four years. It was Drummond's eighth since 2003, with three of those coming as part of the Flint Creek co-op with Philipsburg.
We'll dive deeper into the Titans momentarily, but let's take a second to look back at some of the top moments of the 8-Man season.
Runner-up Scobey put together an impressive run after losing its season opener against Westby-Grenora, which was making its 8-Man debut. But the Spartans have a class of seniors that have played quite a few important games in their athletic career that had them on the cusp of their first state title since 2002. You'll hear from the Spartans again in March. We saw Joliet's Rye Brastrup announce himself as one of the best running backs in 8-Man football before a back injury in the first half against Park City knocked him out the rest of the season. One can only imagine how differently Joliet's season may have ended had Brastrup been in the lineup.
Fort Benton once again made a deep playoff run, as the Longhorns' seniors played a ton of high-level football games over the past two years. Had it not been for a meeting with Drummond-Philipsburg in the semifinals, I'm convinced no other team beats the Longhorns to keep them out of the championship game.
As for Drummond-Philipsburg? Head coach Mike Cutler is going out in style, losing just four games in his four seasons with the Titans. Oh, and he has those three state titles in his back pocket. Cutler will now take on a different role: that of a fan, as he will watch his son Kade Cutler play for Montana State. Kade Cutler has quarterbacked the Titans during Mike Cutler's tenure.
As the 6-Man season wore on, it became clear that there were a 'Big Four' that would be competing for a state title. Those four teams made the semifinals as No. 1 seeds -- Shields Valley, White Sulphur Springs, Big Sandy and Froid-Medicine Lake -- before being whittled down to the final two.
Entering the year, Big Sandy was the prohibitive favorite after bringing back a load of talent from a 2019 semifinal run. The Pioneers ran into a buzz saw in Froid-Medicine Lake, though, as the Redhawks ended Big Sandy's season.
Shields Valley had a big injury derail its championship chances, as the Rebels lost an all-state performer in Dylan Flatt midway through the opening round of the playoffs. The Rebels rallied to win that game, their quarterfinal match, but White Sulphur Springs made quick work of short-handed Shields Valley. Would Flatt have been enough to make up the 41-point differential? Maybe not, but the Rebels likely would have made the game much more competitive with the Hornets.
That left White Sulphur Springs with the long trek to Froid-Medicine Lake to play the championship. Froid-Medicine Lake ran away from the Hornets for the first state title in program history. The Redhawks brought hardware home from the fall sports season, and don't be surprised if they're playing late in the high school basketball season, too.
Froid-Medicine Lake will be in good hands moving forward. Freshman Mason Dethman commanded the offense to near perfection this year and will only get better as he gets older. Remember that name, because you're going to hear it plenty of the next three-plus years.
As a whole, Montana currently has 20 players committed to play football for Montana State or the University of Montana in the 2021 recruiting class. That's without hearing from Dylan Rollins, Montana's top recruit, and Bergen. Montana last sent 20 kids to play for the Cats and Griz in the 2019 class.
It's going to be a long nine months before football returns, but we'll never forget the 2020 season.