LAUREL — It's been 17 years since the Laurel Locomotives last played for a state football title, but Mike Ludwig remembers 2002 like it was yesterday.
"I couldn't honestly believe it was happening," Ludwig said of Laurel's run in the 2002 Class A playoffs, his first season in charge of the program. "We go over to Dillon and beat those guys in overtime. Then we have to travel and go to Whitefish. Then kind of the same scenario we have this year, we played Havre early in the season that year and got beat by them, and then we played them in state championship and we were able to beat them."
The parallels are everywhere, down to the eerie similarities between Laurel's first meeting with Miles City this year and last weekend's win in Dillon. Laurel jumped out to a 21-0 lead only to survive 21-12. Go back to Game 2 when the Cowboys led 21-0 at half and had to hold off the hard-charging Locos.
"We came out so slow. We just really weren't prepared to come out," said Laurel senior Cameron Younger.
"We didn't get really hit hard yet, so them coming out and punching us in the mouth was really like a wake-up call," echoed senior Keagan Campbell. "I'm glad it was early in the season and not in the playoffs. It woke us up and we started playing hard."
Since then, Laurel has won eight straight, including a monkey-off-the-back victory over Billings Central, the Locos' first win over the Rams since - you guessed it - 2002.
"It's been one of those seasons," said Ludwig. "It had been such a long time, not being able to beat those guys. I think that helped our confidence level out quite a bit."
This is the 11th consecutive year the Locos have made the Class A playoffs, but there's one thing that finally put this group over the top.
"I'd say the camaraderie and everyone working together as a whole unit," Campbell said. "We kind of missed that in the past few years that I've been playing anyways."
"I talk about that the very first thing, the very first practice," said Ludwig. "You can have a lot of talent, but if you don't have chemistry and you don't care for each other, things can go real bad real quick."
They saw that firsthand back in September but are ready to match that intensity this time.
"It'll be a physical game," Younger said confidently. "It's not like either team will roll over one team. It'll be a battle for that No. 1 spot."
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Saturday in Miles City.