Jim Stanton and Bryce Carver were the final two Class A football coaches calling games last fall.
Stanton’s Billings Central squad edged by Carver’s Hamilton team in the state championship, and both well could be among the last ones standing again this year.
But, according to both coaches, don’t write Billings Central and Hamilton into the playoffs in pen just yet.
“It’s hard to say where everybody’s going to land,” Stanton said. “I think it’s going to be wide open, and I think that’s going to be a good thing.”
“I think Class A is probably going to shape up to be tougher than what it’s been in the past,” echoed Carver. “I think it’s just going to be an exciting year. … I think it’s going to be pretty equal, and I think there’s going to be some really good games this year.”
The Class A conversation seemingly always includes Billings Central. Not only are the Rams the defending state champion, they’ve made the playoffs 16 consecutive years and have played in nine championship games in that span.
Stanton and Central don’t rebuild — they reload — but this year is a bigger project than they’re accustomed to tackling.
“We’re returning not very many kids. They realize that, and I think they feel like this is something that they’ve had to wait in line behind some pretty good players, and so they’re eager to get a chance to play and participate. That’s kind of neat to see,” Stanton said.
"Just working with every kid, realizing that, even when they’re younger, they have a role on the team,” he added. “And sometimes it just takes a year or two before you see the field. Obviously keeping them in tune on the sub-varsity as far as getting a lot of playing time. We, as coaches, put a lot of emphasis on our young kids just like we do our old kids year in and year out. That part of it and that tradition is real important, and they want to carry it on, even if they only have one year to potentially play on the varsity level. That’s a pretty neat part about what we do, is just the excitement of kids finally getting an opportunity because really they were behind some awful good players.”
Central graduated an astonishing seven all-state players, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Guys like Marcus Wittman, Derek Damjanovich, Michael Hayden and Bo Hakert have already caught Stanton’s attention.
But he especially likes what he’s seen out of his defense in the offseason, during camps and in the early stages of fall practices. Junior JaQuawhann Booth is a two-time all-state lineman, and he’ll anchor that side of the ball.
“Our (linebackers) are going to be brand new, but they’re kids that have stood in line and are tough, physical kids that are going to come to play,” Stanton said. “I really like the scrappiness of our defense, that’s one thing that stood out. Again, we’ve got a lot of pieces to put in there, but I just like what they did at camp and were scrappy.”
With Belgrade moving out of Class A and into Class AA, teams in the Eastern A now feature byes in the regular-season schedules. For Central, that bye is in Week 1, giving Stanton and his staff an extra week of preparation for a young team.
When the Rams take the field for their first game of the 2019 season on Sept. 6, they’ll be going up against Lewistown, a team that could be on the rise after an impressive playoff performance last fall. The Golden Eagles ran past Sidney in the first round before suffering a heartbreaking one-point loss at Columbia Falls in the second.
“Anytime you do that, I think it brings excitement to your program, and the kids feed off that. Once teams start believing in themselves, they really become, they’re hard to beat. They have that intangible, which is really important,” Stanton said of Lewistown, while also heaping praise on Eastern A rivals Laurel, Miles City and Sidney.
On the other side of the state, Carver similarly praised Western A teams Frenchtown, Columbia Falls, Dillon, Whitefish and Libby.
There’s surely a lot of fine talent among those programs — Frenchtown’s Jace Klucewich, Tel Arthur and Hank Rugg; Dillon’s Justus Peterson and Jace Fitzgerald; and Butte Central’s Aaron Richards to name a few — but Carver and the Broncs still hold Class A’s ace.
Reigning Gatorade player of the year and future Montana Grizzly Carson Rostad is back under center at Hamilton, where he has guided the Broncs to 27 wins in three seasons and rewritten the Class A record books.
“When you bring back a guy like him … I can’t put into words how valuable that is, just to a program as a whole, both on the field and off the field, just his leadership,” Carver said of Rostad. “He’s been working his butt off, and I think he just wants to continue to get better every day and continue to help the team.”
Rostad’s favorite target from the past two seasons, Cam Rothie, has graduated, but Carver is confident in the up-and-coming skill guys, including Tyson Rostad, the star QB’s sophomore brother. There’s also all-state linebacker/receiver Tucker Jones back in the fold.
“(Jones is) another leader that’s started for three years for us,” Carver said. “I really think he’s going to do some good things this year, just by how hard he’s worked. Obviously, all-state kid last year, but I think he’s another team guy that wants that end goal at the end of the year. I really expect some big things out of him this year. Him and Carson have kind of been running this team after the season got over last year, they started going again.”
Hamilton won't work through just the Southwestern A this year. The Southwestern and Northwestern conferences have combined to form one division -- the Western A -- which will send six teams to the playoffs.
Returning first-team all-state players
*Based on 2018 honors teams
Nelson Crisafulli, RB, Glendive; Mason Dionne, RB, Havre; Kasee Henderson, OT, Havre; Carson Rostad, QB/SS, Hamilton; Jace Fitzgerald, TE, Dillon; Trevon Fisher, RB, Browning; Taylor Gladeau, OC, Libby; JaQuawhann Booth, DL, Billings Central; Jack Waddell, FS, Livingston; Jace Klucewich, FS, Frenchtown; Tucker Jones, OLB, Hamilton; Hank Rugg, DE, Frenchtown; Cade Baker, CB, Frenchtown; Brad Nieves, OLB, Columbia Falls.