COLUMBIA FALLS — The Columbia Falls Wildcats entered the Class A football playoffs as the No. 4 seed from the West. Now, they find themselves one win away from bringing home the second state title in program history.
"It's crazy, it's kind of cool going out knowing you only have one more left instead of going into a game thinking, you know, this might be our last or we still have a chance," said senior wide receiver Mark Robison. "But we know we have one more shot and one more chance to lay it all out there."
After dropping back-to-back games in September by a combined nine points, things looked bleak for the Wildcats, but since then their record has been unblemished.
"We've known all season what we could be, and we had that rough patch, and we knew that wasn't us," said Robison. "And then we just came to practice and continued to work hard and once we got some momentum, we kind of just rode with it and kept working and believed in ourselves."
As for what led to their turnaround after a 2-2 start to the season that held high expectations:
"I attribute it all to the kids and their mindset and the grit they've shown to say, 'Hey, we're not gonna let this happen, because we're good enough to be a state championship team,'" said 20-year offensive line coach Kelly Houl. "Now we just got to step up to the plate. Don't worry about any of the other noise that's going around there. It's all about us. It's all about our locker room. It's not about anybody else, it's about us. And that's what they did."
During their now seven-game winning streak the Wildcats have suffered a few bumps and bruises along the way but have fully embraced the ‘no pain no gain’ mentality.
"After every game we've known we're gonna be rough and sore, but we got to know we got to sell all out," said senior quarterback Cody Schweikert. "The pain is not as bad as loss, right? If you’re winning, you’re not gonna be feeling the pain and we've known, you know, job's not done, job's not done til we got it."
Now they’re preparing for their fourth state championship appearance in program history against a familiar opponent in the Dillon Beavers. Dillon handed the Wildcats their first loss of the year in a tight 22-19 matchup.
"I think we're treating that kind of just like any other game," said senior lineman Tristan Crane. "We know we're playing a really good opponent, but we just gotta go out there and try our hardest just like every other game."
Their path to the title game has featured two upsets on the road against the No. 1 seed from the East in Billings Central and the second seed from the West in Corvallis. Crane knows their success is all thanks to the bond they’ve built over the years.
"The friendships, everybody's just friends with each other, we all love hanging out with each other," said Crane. "I just couldn't ask for more, honestly. It’s the best team I could ever be part of."
Crane isn’t the only senior who knows that to be true, as Schweikert has full faith that his brothers in blue will be by his side battling from the first snap to the last down as they have all year.
"They play like every play is going to be the game, and, I mean, that's what it takes," said Schweikert. "Just to watch your teammates go out, you got to love them for that."
"They're playing for each other, that's all you can ask for. And when you're playing for each other, it's a great thing to be a part of. That's what our team motto is — ‘Deserve to win in brotherhood’ — and that's what we got."
The dual-threat quarterback plans to get his squad fired up before the big game.
"Let them all know that, I mean, there’s not another team out there I'd ever want to be with," said Schweikert. "Loved every second of playing with these fellas."
"We got one shot, last chance from memories right here for are all of us. And we've all been dreaming of it. We know this is what it is right here, and we know we can win it, so let's do it."
The Wildcats will be battling the Dillon Beavers in Dillon at 1 p.m. Saturday for the 2023 Class A state title.