FAIRVIEW -- Fairview won its first state football title last fall as one of the most dominant 8-Man teams in recent memory. This season is going to look drastically different for the Warriors, who are replacing 11 seniors.
Gone are all-staters Alex Schriver, Cody Asbeck, Tom and Ethan Neu, Jesse Selting and Braiden Taylor, as well as all-conference picks Josh Herron and Dylan Elletson. Fairview does bring back plenty of talent, though, with all-state sophomore Hunter Sharbono and all-state seniors Brady Buxbaum and Easton Hopes. That's opened the door for some new faces to emerge for the Warriors, as well.
Paul Hardy, Steve Rice and Kanyon Taylor all return after having contributed significant snaps in the 2019 season. Taylor will take over as the team's quarterback, while Rice is touted as one of the team's most versatile players. The returnees didn't waste any time after last year's title run getting back to work as soon as they could this summer.
"I told a lot of people I wasn't sure what to expect when we finally got back together, but I was pleasantly surprised how much the younger guys on the team already knew as far as formations, where they're supposed to line up and all that," Fairview head coach Levi Seitz said. "We had to have restrictions on the number of people we'd allow in the weight room, so we weren't able to do a lot of team workouts together. It was kind of on their own. ... A lot of it was the seniors kind of taking over that leadership role. ... I'm impressed by how they handled the summer and how ready they are."
Seitz knows Fairview will need to rely heavily on its upperclassmen this season, especially with 10 freshmen on the roster. The Warriors' depth was critical last season, as it allowed players like Taylor and Rice to get a lot of playing time, whether that was due to big leads or nursing injuries. Depth won't be in Fairview's favor this fall, though. Seitz is also counting on versatility to be beneficial to his team.
"Staying healthy is going to be a huge thing for us. That's also kind of played a factor in how we're practicing. We're trying not to be lining up and smacking each other around maybe as much as we used to, because we can't afford to have any injuries," Seitz said. "We have some guys that have been playing skill positions and now they're playing guard. We have some that maybe didn't play last year and now they're coming back, playing a little catch-up because they missed a year. ... It's just a learning curve. Some of these guys went from not nearly as many reps in practice and being on the scout team to now they're the guy. There's a lot to process."
Last season, Fairview was able to lean on its running game whenever it wanted, as the Warriors had big, beefy offensive linemen that could really move defenders around. While the offensive line will lose some size but be a little more agile, Seitz expects Fairview to be able to impose its will on the ground once again.
"They're a gritty bunch. They don't really back down. They know that we don't have the size of our line last year, but now we have more quicker athletic guards that can move a little faster. ... We want to be able to rely on running the ball, getting two or three yards if we need to. They know they're not as big, but they play like they are," Seitz said. "We're still planning on being able to line it up in double-tight and run it downhill if we need to. We'll spread it out and let our quicker guys get the ball. We don't want to be one-dimensional really ever. Just keep things the same, but plug the guys in the right spots to succeed."
One guy that will make Seitz's job exponentially easier is Sharbono, the standout sophomore. Sharbono garnered all-state honors as a freshman in 2019 and made an immediate impact on both sides of the ball.
This fall, opposing coaches can expect to see Sharbono all over the field -- running the ball, catching it, lead blocking, and being the physical tone-setter up front on defense.
"Sharbono is only a sophomore, but he's an absolute monster. ... We're probably going to plan on putting Sharbono at fullback and hopefully letting him just run over everybody in his way," Seitz laughed. "We could put him anywhere. We could put him at center, at quarterback, at tight end or guard and he'd probably be one of the best players on the field wherever he is. ... Being able to mix up your packages and personnel gives you the ability to run different plays that will be more successful. Switching two guys in one formation will maybe allow you to run a trap better or run a screen better, something like that."
Sharbono and his Fairview teammates will get to set the tone early this season, as the Warriors host Ekalaka on Friday night. Fairview was set to play Scobey, but with St. Labre, Lodge Grass and Lame Deer no longer playing a football season the schedule was shuffled around. There will also no longer be sub-divisions in the 8-Man East this season.
Repeating as 8-Man East champions won't be easy, though, especially with a championship program joining the mix this year.
"Scobey has definitely been one of our top threats recently, and Circle should be tough this year," Seitz said. "I don't know what to expect from (Westby-Grenora). It being their first year in 8-Man, really anything could happen. They could be the real deal or maybe this is a transition year for them, I don't know. I know they've been successful in 6-Man, winning state championships in the recent past. And I think that's great. It's great to have another good, competitive team join the conference. You'd almost rather have a close game that you lose than a bunch of blowout games that you win, because you don't really gain much from those."
Fairview will have the proverbial target on its back this season as the defending state champion, and there's no shortage of teams around the state that will threaten the Warriors' throne atop 8-Man football.
Fort Benton, which made a run to the semifinals last year, Alberton-Superior, which lost to Fairview in the title game but returns its explosive playmaking quarterback, and Drummond-Philipsburg, led by Montana State commit Kade Cutler, and Shelby are just a few of the teams around the state that should be competitive late in the season.
"(Drummond-Phliipsburg), of course. (Mike) Cutler always has his team ready to go. His son has done a good job. It's his son's senior year, so I know he's going to be amped for that," Seitz said. "Fort Benton is always super tough. (Alberton-Superior), obviously we played them in the championship, they have their quarterback coming back, Bryan Mask. I know (Jeff) Schultz will have his team and his high-flying offense ready to go. Great Falls Central just got a new coach. They're a really tough group of kids. We've got a history against them in the playoffs. I can imagine them being pretty good. Shelby had a down year. Lot of people expected them to be really good, but they had to deal with a lot of injuries last year, which is a bummer. I know they did have a lot of talent, but they always have big numbers. I know coach (Mike) White, talking to him, he always prides himself on being able to get 90-some percent of the boys in the high school to go out for football."
Until proven otherwise, though, all roads must go through Fairview.