Miles City rolled through the rest of Class A in 2019 on its way to an unbeaten season and the State A football title. Several impact seniors have graduated, including three first-team all-conference offensive linemen and record-breaking wide receiver Jess Bellows, which will allow new Cowboys to step in and fill those roles.
"It’s early right now, so we have a lot of open spots and competition, but it’s really good competition. Some of the best football I saw last year was actually in practice, and that’s not to say anything against teams we played, but our younger guys really came a long way last year playing against some of those good players," Miles City coach Jeff Regan said.
But Regan has his most important weapon back -- all-state quarterback Carson Hunter.
Hunter, now a senior, set Eastern A records in 2019 with 36 touchdown passes and just north of 2,500 passing yards. But the numbers are just part of the story with Hunter.
"(Hunter) is real special. Just a good person, too, and a great leader. To be honest with you, I haven't been around a better high school quarterback. I don't even know if I've seen one, to be honest," Regan said. "I don't know if he necessarily gets the publicity other people in the state get, but in his last six games last year he completed 71 percent of his passes, had 21 touchdowns, no interceptions and over 1,500 yards. That's against mostly playoff teams. Stats don't really say exactly how great he is. He always gets us in the right play, he's good at reading defenses and getting the ball out on time. He's accurate. He's good to his teammates. He's just a good leader and a real special kid. Like I said, I know there's some other people that are recruited already and going places, but if I had to start my team, I'm lucky enough to have him on it."
Hunter will need to find a new No. 1 target with the graduation of Bellows, but he shouldn't have to look too far. Hunter's classmate Jayden Venable was an all-state selection at wide receiver last year after playing a bit of a hybrid role. Venable possesses the same game-breaking potential of Bellows and is primed for a monster season.
"Those guys have a pretty special bond. (Hunter) has been throwing to (Venable) forever," Regan said. "We have a lot of different guys that are going to be in the mix there, too. It’ll be a good group. They’ve worked really hard. That’s one of the things I’m just really proud of. They got right to work after the season last year. It was a different spring, but they didn’t use it as an excuse not to put in the time."
One of the guys likely to fill the role Venable played last season will be Damian Leidholt. Leidholt, a senior, carried the ball out of the backfield at times last season while also making impact plays on defense. This year, Leidholt will likely carry the ball more frequently, but his biggest asset could be his hands. All-conference cornerback Danny Anderson could find himself playing on both sides of the ball this year, too.
With its dominant offensive line last year, Hunter seemingly had as long in the pocket as he needed to find an open receiver. Jessy Chapweske, a second-team all-conference selection last season, returns to anchor the group up front, which will see several new faces.
"That group spent a lot of time in the weight room. We’re going to obviously have to come together and gel. The weight room doesn’t make you a good football player, but it helps. They’ve put time in, that’s all we can ask for. Just need to get it done when we go play," Regan said.
That's seemingly been the biggest constant for Regan and Miles City during an uncertain offseason. Regan said even before COVID-19 hit and wiped out group workouts, the players were right back at work. During the period where coaches weren't allowed to communicate with players, the seniors were organizing workouts and getting the team together.
Miles City was back in the weight room on May 9 but with restrictions. The Cowboys rolled through hand sanitizer and disinfectant while keeping groups to about 10. It also kept Regan there most of the day, having to take multiple groups of athletes to work out.
But he hasn't seen their spirits drop, as they're ready to hit the field and defend a state championship.
"The one thing I’m really proud of is they haven’t complained with the new rules. There’s probably been some grumbling, but they’re in school, wearing their masks," Regan said. "The way we practice is a little different. We have two different practices for different age kids. We practice more in pods and they’ve just adapted and had a great attitude. The biggest thing we’re focused on is not what we don’t have, not how many people are in the stands or who’s there, just what we do have. That’s the opportunity to do what these guys love to do and what they’ve dedicated their lives, honestly, to have this opportunity in their senior year."
Miles City is now the hunted rather than the hunter. Regan pointed out that teams such as Laurel and Billings Central bring back a lot of key pieces and will likely be dangerous as the season progresses. Teams in the Western A, such as Dillon, which returns four all-conference players, and Hamilton, which also brings back several all-conference selections but not record-setting quarterback Carson Rostad, are the usual contenders. Regan also said Whitefish could be a team that makes a run this season after keeping a large portion of its roster.
Regan and Miles City, though, aren't focused on teams in the Western A, or really even teams in their own conference.
"We don’t really talk about that much. We just enjoy the game. Our guys enjoy the game, the process and the competition. I don’t think they’re afraid of having a target on their back. By the end of the year last year we had that. They embraced that," Regan said. "We’re a different team and there’s different teams out there that have different expectations, so every year is a new year. We’re just going to try and keep our same focus on what we’re doing day-in and day-out to get to where we were last year, as the way we executed and the way we performed between the lines."