BOZEMAN -- Levi Wesche hasn't stopped thinking about it for seven years.
The Bozeman head football coach, who previously served as an offensive coordinator for the Hawks, can still remember his vantage point from the Naranche Stadium sideline in 2012.
"Probably the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of, unfortunately on the wrong side of it, but it had a little bit of everything," Wesche recalled of Bozeman's 2012 state championship loss to Butte. "We were down 14 in the fourth quarter, we were able to score, get an onside kick, score and go for two. We go up one, they get a big kick return, make a couple plays and kick a field goal to win it as time expires.
"It’s etched in my memory, I can tell you that. There’s not a football season that goes by where I don’t think about that game and how it shaped me as a coach or how it shaped this program even."
Jake Dennehy's 46-yard field goal as time expired gave Butte a 38-36 win in the 2012 Class AA state championship game, but Wesche is quick to credit that loss for Bozeman's title the following year, saying it "motivated that group of kids."
Friday night, the two rivals will go head-to-head in a state championship rematch nearly a decade later. But it's a rivalry game that almost didn't happen.
In 2019, Class AA split into the Eastern and Western AA, with longtime foes Bozeman and Butte landing in opposite leagues -- Bozeman in the Eastern AA, Butte the West. The two programs didn't meet in the non-conference portion of the schedule in the first two weeks and wouldn't have squared off at all if not for both qualifying for the state championship game.
"I don’t think there’s anything better than (the Bozeman-Butte rivalry). We were very disappointed, and I think Butte was too, that we’re not on each other's schedule for the first time in 12 years, at least, since I’ve been here, and probably even longer than that," said Wesche, who has spent a dozen years on the Hawks' sidelines. "When you lose a rival like that, you’re very disappointed because it does bring a special juice. Now to see that it comes to fruition in the championship game, it’s pretty special. I’m excited to see our kids go over to that environment, which is just so electric, and feel what big-time football feels like. Our kids are very blessed to have this opportunity."
Punching a ticket to Friday's championship was a surprise to many outside of Bozeman after the Hawks sputtered out of the gates this fall. Despite a 35-0 season-opening win against Kalispell Flathead, Wesche says his team was still searching for an identity, while also in a "state of disarray" after losing senior star McCade O'Reilly to an injury during an August practice.
When the Hawks were upset 21-18 by Missoula Big Sky a week later, the Eagles' lone win of 2019, many jumped off the Bozeman train. All Wesche's club did was win nine straight games, including a 26-20 victory over Billings West on Oct. 25 to clinch the Eastern AA's No. 1 seed.
"I think that game really slapped us back to reality, like, ‘You have to work every day. You have to get better every day or you’re not going to be successful in this league, because any team can beat any team any game night,’" Wesche said of the Big Sky loss. "For us, it was just about refocusing, getting back to what we thought we did well, and continuing to get better every single practice."
"The Big Sky loss was just humbling for us, really," added Bozeman quarterback Jake D'Agostino. "It made us work harder and realize we weren’t going to roll over everyone, we had to get to work every week. We learned not to take every win for granted."
Standing in the way of the Hawks and a third state championship this decade is a top-ranked Butte program that's 11-0 and relying on the ghosts of historic Naranche Stadium to again lift them to the top of the classification.
"We have to take advantage of each time we get the ball," said D'Agostino of Bozeman's game plan this weekend. "The last game (last Friday’s 28-21 semifinal win over Missoula Sentinel) we only got the ball two times in each quarter, and that’s how it is this time of year, so we need to not have turnovers, be smart with the ball and take advantage of each drive we get."
Wesche agreed: "Establish the run, be extremely efficient, convert on third down, don’t turn the ball over and somewhere in there we have to create explosive plays. What we don’t want them to do, we have to be able to do. If we can do that, hopefully we’re close in the end."
Wesche certainly doesn't want to spend the next seven years again dwelling on a championship loss to the Bulldogs. Even if it becomes the new greatest game he's been a part of.