HARLOWTON — Jon Mysse knows what a successful high school football program looks like.
A 2004 Harlowton graduate, Mysse saw firsthand in the late 1990s and early 2000s what it takes to annually compete for conference championships and consistently win in the playoffs. During Mysse’s high school days, Harlowton won the 8-Man South in 2001 and 2002 and advanced to the semifinal round of the 2003 8-Man state playoffs, only to see its season end at the hands of Chase Reynolds and Drummond.
While this year’s Engineers still have a long way to go in writing their history, the evidence is mounting that they’re building toward maintained success.
“If you’re truly going to be successful, you have to put in the time. Nothing is going to come easy,” said Mysse, the Harlowton-Ryegate head football coach.
“I’ve really built a lot around this senior group from the time they were freshmen, then now you just have every younger class coming in kind of knowing what’s expected,” he added. “It’s as much their program as anybody’s. They’ve single-handedly built it. The coach, you can kind of lay out the guidance, but it’s kind of up to the kids to build that.”
The Engineers’ four-player senior class of Johnny Mysse, Ryan Fenley, Cooper Gantz and Jason Todhunter deserves as much credit as anybody for this year’s 4-1 start. Harlowton-Ryegate currently sits in first place in the newly formed Central Division, half-game ahead of Roy-Winifred and Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap, who are both 3-1.
Juniors Colter Woldstad, Sivad Davis and Cole Blatter also see plenty of field time. Seven freshmen make up the rest of the Engineers’ roster.
“We’ve got just a pretty good core group of kids,” Jon Mysse said. “We’ve got a lot of numbers, or more numbers than we’ve had in the past, but we’ve got a lot of young kids.”
Facing declining enrollments and decreased participation, Harlowton-Ryegate made the move from 8-Man football to 6-Man after the 2018 season. Though the Engineers had a handful of playoff berths since that 2003 season, they hadn’t won a playoff game since. In their first season playing 6-Man football last year, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to finish the season 4-5.
They’ve already matched that win total this year, grinding out a 26-6 win over Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap in Week 1 and stringing together consecutive wins over Centerville (59-0), Denton-Geyser-Stanford (44-42), and Grass Range-Winnett (49-18). Harlowton-Ryegate’s lone loss was a 22-16 setback against Roy-Winifred on Sept. 12.
But it’s that win over DGS that shows how far the Engineers have come in their mental resiliency. It was a back-and-forth game the entire way, and Harlowton-Ryegate didn’t seal the win until blocking a DGS point-after try that would have tied the game in the waning seconds.
“The funny and ironic thing is, we actually had a kid, Jason Todhunter, who blocked two field goals previous to that, that if he didn’t block, that one wouldn’t have mattered,” Jon Mysse said. “You had one field goal that got blocked that sealed the game, but you actually had some big plays that led up to that.”
Those Harlowton football teams of the early 2000s often hung their hats on their physicality and defense, and Jon Mysse is building this program in the same image. In four of their five games this season, the Engineers have allowed 22 points or fewer, an impressive mark given the high-scoring nature of 6-Man football.
“I would like to think that if you talk to most teams we play that we’re a pretty physical, hard-hitting team. We’ve dedicated a lot of time to the weight room,” Jon Mysse said. “And our run defense is pretty stout. I think our kids kind of like to hit and they like to be physical.”
The downside to that physicality is it sometimes leaves holes in the pass coverage, an admitted point of emphasis as the Engineers prepare for the home stretch of the 2020 season, which has already undergone some adjustments. Positive COVID-19 cases in the school — none on the football team — forced Harlowton-Ryegate (4-1) to postpone this weekend’s scheduled game with Geraldine-Highwood (3-2). Those teams will now play at 5 p.m. Oct. 14 in a game that will surely have playoff implications.
Roy-Winifred and Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap meet this week in Moore for another game that will likely play a role in deterring playoff seeds.
“When you get those teams who have that knowledge and some of those coaches who have coached for so many years, it’s definitely tough,” Jon Mysse said of the 6-Man Central. “I think that Central Division that we’re in this year, it’s a tough division. There’s no slacking. You’ve got definitely more than half in that division that I think are contenders. You’ve got some very good teams and some coaches that know the game very, very well.”