SEELEY LAKE — It’s not about rebuilding, but reloading for the Thompson Falls Blue Hawks.
Thompson Falls is off to a 5-0 start in 2021 as one of the top 8-Man teams in the state, showing once again they expect to be contenders year in, and year out. The Blue Hawks are currently ranked No. 3 in the MontanaSports.com high school football power rankings.
But it doesn't come without some surprise. Thompson Falls lost seven seniors from last year's playoff team. Losing a large number like that oftentimes decimates small-town programs the following season, but not the Blue Hawks in 2021.
"We knew we were just as good if not better," said Trae Thilmony, a senior running back and linebacker. "We reloaded with athletes and honestly I think we’re hungrier than last year. I think we’re more prepared. Some of these guys maybe were on the sidelines past two years when we made some playoff runs and we’re ready to go."
After flying under the radar to start the season, Thompson Falls has outscored opponents 260-38. Their most recent three-game stretch featured wins over St. Ignatius, Alberton-Superior and Seeley-Swan, teams that typically make the playoffs or are in contention at the end of the season.
Thilmony, who is also a two-time state wrestling champion, is the lone returning starter for the Blue Hawks, and leads the team with 487 rushing yards and has six touchdowns on the ground. He also leads the team with 55 total tackles and 11 sacks. Junior quarterback Elijah Ratliff has also rushed for 422 yards and 13 scores as well. The Blue Hawks are a run-heavy team, with 1,499 rushing yards so far this season as opposed to just 135 yards and two scores through the air.
In blowout games last year, backups saw more time and got experience on the field, which is now paying off for the Blue Hawks.
"Having only one guy back from last year, I think having the rest of the guys after last year and having all of the blowouts, having guys play after the blowouts, having our JV guys come in, stepping those guys up after every game is a big help like today’s game like those kids are going to be playing next year a lot so I think that’s a big help," said senior Nathan Schraeder, a wide receiver and linebacker who had two pick-6's against Seeley-Swan last Friday.
Along with Thilmony, Illinois transfer Ryan Bucher has been a key component for Thompson Falls on both sides of the ball. Bucher, Thilmony, Schraeder, Jordan Fisher, Erik Strom, Daniel Schrier, Andrew Romero-Townsend, Jeffrey Mennon and Lance Palmer are Thompson Falls' nine seniors this season, all of whom saw the success of the last two years.
"So when they grow up and they’re playing together, the seniors kind of took over last year, but their friends kind of were behind them and wanted to play a little bit more so they see what success they had and they want to mimic it so they played together," ninth-year Thompson Falls football coach Jared Koskela said. "It comes down to the offseason and that’s where they kind of got it. I want that success, I want those stickers on that helmet, I want to be like them if not better and I think we’re getting there."
Thompson Falls sports 35 total players in the program. In just their third year at the 8-Man level since dropping down from Class B, the Blue Hawks are solidifying themselves as perennial 8-Man contenders again. The last two years they advanced to the quarterfinal round of the playoffs, and Koskela said their goal is to get the top seed from the 8-Man West and grab home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Going forward, it's about continuing that upward movement.
"A big thing is tradition I think," Thilmony said. "Everyone's looking up to those next guys and the class above them and they're wanting to be just like that class. Just keep getting better."