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Missoula Big Sky enters season with high hopes, deeper numbers in football program

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Posted at 10:10 PM, Aug 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-26 11:48:26-04

MISSOULA — The sport of football has always been a numbers game. Just ask the coaches at Missoula Big Sky, as the Eagles have struggled with numbers in their program over the last couple of years. But Big Sky coach Matt Johnson says this year’s team has more depth than seasons past, and that could go a long way as Big Sky aims to get back to the Class AA playoffs.

Lack of numbers in the football program are often a storyline for Big Sky. But this year, Johnson said the team has over 20 more players in the sophomore through senior classes, something that gives added optimism for the upcoming year.

"We’re going to be competitive in every game and sometimes you can’t control pieces of it but we can control how we play every game all the way to the finish and that’s something we take pride in," said Johnson, who enters his 12th year at the helm of Big Sky. "I think we’ve sent that message and mark across AA football and people understand when they play us they better be ready, we’re going to be physical and we’re going to come compete."

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Missoula Big Sky head football coach Matt Johnson speaks with Louis Sanders (6) during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Colter Janacaro was a two-year staple at quarterback for Big Sky. Now, he's gone to the Griz, so senior Caleb Hren is slated to take his spot under center for the Eagles.

"Yeah he was definitely great, he was a great leader," Hren said of his predecessor. "That helped me a lot whenever he was out, you guys saw him on the field but off the field he was a great leader. He was always helping me out, being able to be a leader and help me out is the most important."

Hren will have no shortage of targets either.

Players like seniors Louis Sanders and Tre Reed are returning starters as receivers and defensive backs as well as other skills position players in seniors Cole Sandberg, Kolby Jensen and Isaac Ayers also round out an athletic bunch. Fellow seniors Chaise Meyer and Liam Sandoval were two other standouts on the line for Johnson early on, and all of those players figure to contribute on both sides of the ball.

"Seniors that had to step in when they were sophomores at times and play and so they're well-seasoned, they've had a lot of reps," Johnson said. "Really, I think it'll be for them just coming together as a unit and understanding how all of that plays out."

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Missoula Big Sky players compete during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Sanders (27 receptions, 372 yards, 1 touchdown) and Reed (26 catches, 266 yards, 3 touchdowns) were Big Sky's leading receivers a year ago. Jensen led the team in tackles with 82 total while Sanders led the team with four interceptions.

"It makes me nervous and it definitely makes me excited at the same time. Like losing Colter was a big key factor, he kept everybody’s heads up no matter what," Sanders said. "Now we just have to look forward to what we got and what tools we could use and all that."

Big Sky opens the season against Bozeman Gallatin on Friday. The Eagles are no strangers to success, but after a few down years, they're ready to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2017.

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Missoula Big Sky head football coach Matt Johnson speaks to his team after practice on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

"It honestly clicked right away because a lot of people we had here throughout the whole summer and they already knew what was the consequences of not showing up and everything like that," Sanders said of the first weeks of fall practice.

"This first week could be who knows, who knows what anybody has this year so we got to go out expecting the best team in the state," Hren added. "We got to be the best team in the state this week and we got to go from there, every week has got to get better."