Do all roads go through Missoula Sentinel?
That's the question that has to be asked as Class AA football teams kick off their state playoffs on Friday. The Spartans, the undefeated No. 1 seed out of the Western AA, boast a roster loaded with talent, and they've backed up the preseason hype with dominant showings throughout the season. But they're not the only undefeated team in the bracket: Billings West ran the table in the Eastern AA and was similarly dominant, save for games against Billings Senior and Bozeman High. The Golden Bears will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The coronavirus pandemic did take a toll on the Class AA season, canceling all non-conference games (and some conference games in the middle of the season), meaning teams from the East and West have no common opponents this fall. While Sentinel and West are both undefeated, there's no way to compare their bodies of work. The perception is that the East has more high-end depth than the West, but that won't be determined on the actual field of play until at least the quarterfinal round.
In another wrinkle in this shortened football season, Class AA administrators altered the bracket. Twelve teams are in, with four teams -- No. 1 seeds Missoula Sentinel and Billings West and No. 2 seeds Helena High and Billings Senior -- earning first-round byes. Friday's first-round games will be de facto conference playoffs: No. 5 Helena Capital at No. 4 Butte and No. 6 Missoula Big Sky at No. 3 Kalispell Glacier in the Western AA, and No. 5 Billings Skyview at No. 4 Great Falls and No. 6 Great Falls CMR at No. 3 Bozeman High in the Eastern AA.
The bracket will be re-seeded after the first round, but they won't be re-seeded after next week's quarterfinals.
No. 1 seeds: Missoula Sentinel (West), Billings West (East).
Both the Spartans and Bears were impressive in wins this season, rarely being challenged. Sentinel, especially, has looked like the state's dominant force behind a bevy of college talent, including offensive lineman Dylan Rollins, who has yet to make a college decision despite owning scholarship offers from a number of NCAA Division I programs. While the Spartans' explosive offense garners many of the headlines, the defense has been just as impressive this season. In seven wins, Sentinel has allowed just 33 total points and shut out four opponents.
West, meanwhile, has seen a couple challenges this season. The Bears started the season with two shutouts in the their first three games, but the schedule toughened over the back half of the regular season. West got a closer-than-the-score-indicates 41-14 win over crosstown rival Billings Senior on Oct. 2 and then rallied for a 23-19 win over Bozeman to close out the regular season last week. The Broncs and Hawks are worthy contenders that figure to make some noise in the postseason, so it's likely that those hard-fought games will only benefit West over the next few weeks.
Favorite: Missoula Sentinel.
Coach Dane Oliver has spent years building the Sentinel program this level. The Spartans were a semifinal team a year ago, but this year's squad seems like it's Oliver's most talented yet. The dual-quarterback system featuring Camden Sirmon and Dayton Bay is working perfectly, and University of Montana commits Jace Klucewich, Geno Leonard and TJ Rausch have performed as well or better than expected. Sentinel is absolutely loaded this year, and anything short of a state championship, which would be the first for a Missoula Class AA school since 1994 and first for Sentinel since 1972, would be a disappointment.
Dark horse (No. 3 seed or lower): Bozeman High.
Even with losses to Billings Senior in its season opener and Billings West in its season finale, Bozeman looks like a team that could make a playoff run. The Hawks have one of the best players in the state in Kenneth Eiden IV, who plays both ways but is an especially dominant defensive force. He's one of the legitimate game-changing players in the state, but Bozeman proved it isn't a one-man show when Eiden was sidelined for much of the season with an injury.
Best first-round matchup: Helena Capital at Butte.
After difficult starts to their seasons, both of these teams hit their strides in the second half of their schedules. Capital won three of five games to close out the season with the two losses both coming by one possession, including last week's 12-6 crosstown loss to Helena High. The other loss in that stretch came to Butte, which is the biggest reason the Bulldogs will host this weekend's game at historic Naranche Stadium. When the teams met at Vigilante Stadium in Helena in the regular season, Butte scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to get a 20-13 win. The Bulldogs haven't lost since and now bring a four-game win streak into the playoffs.
Junior Bergen, et al
We'd be remiss to preview the Class AA state football playoffs without mentioning Billings Senior star Junior Bergen, who has taken Montana by storm this season producing highlight after highlight after highlight. Bergen regularly makes the extraordinary look ordinary and is one of the most exciting players the state has to offer this fall, but he isn't the only Treasure Stater who has dazzled this fall. Kalispell Glacier's Jake Rendina had a seven-touchdown performance, only to see that topped by Missoula Big Sky's Colter Janacaro contribute an eight-touchdown performance. Great Falls High's Levi Torgerson is no stranger to the end zone, either, and he has the Bison playing inspired ball entering the playoffs.