LAUREL— There are a lot of ways to win (or lose) high school football games. And in the heat of a state title playoff run, smallest details often make the biggest difference.
"It wasn't pretty at times, and we made some mistakes, but we overcame them," Laurel head coach Mike Ludwig told MTN Sports after Saturday's 34-17 quarterfinal win over Frenchtown.
November is one of the most gut-wrenching, yet thrilling months in high school sports - survive and advance. It doesn't matter how.
As high school football zeros in on its Final 4 across Montana, Ludwig's Locomotives would love to cash in on a repeat State A championship. They've showcased an undefeated season thus far (9-0, 8-0) and are fresh off their first regular season conference championship in over 20 years.
Saturday, after trailing Frenchtown with seconds left in the first half, Ludwig pointed to his defense, forcing four second-half interceptions as a game saver.
"I thought our defense played well, hats off to our defensive players and our defensive coordinator," he said. "That's what you need when you get in the playoffs. Defense wins championships."
Defense, and just as critically, special teams.
After confusion resulted in a turnover on the opening kickoff, Laurel's special teams answered late in the first quarter when Jakob Webinger blocked a punt deep in Broncs' territory before Owen Younger scooped it and scored for a 14-3 lead.
But the Locomotive's biggest special teams boost may have hit mid-season when varsity soccer player Kyle Desmet learned his football buddies could use a leg up.
Said Ludwig, "We were struggling at the beginning and Kyle came to me and said, 'Hey, I heard you need a kicker,' and I was like, yeah, desperately."
Until that point, the Locomotives were alternating between a running back and receiver to handle kicking duties.
"Me and Dalton Buehler were taking turns," recalled running back/linebacker Beau Dantic with a sheepish smile. "I wasn't the best."
So, Desmet squeezed in the MHSA-required 10 football practices before Laurel's October 1 game at Billings Central and successfully bridged soccer and football to close the season - a valuable move that could be the difference maker in Laurel's drive for a repeat.
How accurate has be been? Ludwig says Desmet is 19-for-19 on point-after touchdown attempts, and he drilled his only two field goal attempts on the season in Saturday's win over Frenchtown, the first from 26-yards as time expired in the first half giving Laurel a spark into the break tied 17-17. Desmet's next field, late in the third quarter from 27 yards, goal gave the Locomotives a 20-17 lead they'd never relinquish.
"We'll take those three points when we can get them, and those extra points are huge. too," Ludwig said. "That's one of our goals, 100% PATs, so it's good to have a kicker."
"He's a lot better than me, that's for sure," Dantic added with relief. "He's a really good kicker and really comes in when we need him."
That possibility is back on the table Saturday in a 1 p.m. home semifinal against Polson (10-0) where the smallest details could make the biggest impact.