MISSOULA — For the third time in four years, Missoula Sentinel is on to the semifinal round.
The Spartans defeated Great Falls High 42-14 on Friday night at MCPS Stadium behind a dominant defense and ground performance to advance as one of the final four Class AA football teams for the third time in four seasons and second straight year.
"My freshman year, I made that bus trip to Billings Senior (in the 2017 semifinal). It left a sour taste in our mouth watching our boys get smacked around a little bit and then last year (against Bozeman) falling short, it's tough," senior Geno Leonard said. "You grind in the weight room, you think about that and look back on it.
"We're just ready to bring home that (first) championship ever since 1972. Trying to make those strides and get our team there and collectively we'll get there."
Leonard also noted that his grandfather, Gene Leonard, was the head coach of that 1972 Sentinel team, the last time Sentinel won a state football title.
Soren Syvrud and Donovan South each scored two touchdowns while Camden Sirmon connected with Haiden Crews for a touchdown and Dayton Bay threw another touchdown pass to Zac Crews to propel the Spartans offensively.
Syvrud tallied 99 yards on the ground while South and Sirmon each ran for 74 and 73 yards respectively. Sirmon also completed 7 or 12 passing attempts for 109 yards and one interception while Bay went 8 for 12 for 67 yards and a pick as well. Haiden Crews finished as Sentinel's leader in receiving yards with 46 while Zac Crews and TJ Rausch each hauled in three passes.
Zac Crews also added two sacks on defense while Chase Williams tallied a third, meanwhile Rausch and Jace Klucewich each grabbed interceptions.
"We came out here and wanted to just come out and jump on them early but we knew having a bye there could be a chance of us maybe having a slow start," Klucewich said. "When that happened, you can't overthink it and you just have to keep playing how you play and we knew we would end up winning.
"We know what we want and we're going to go out and get it."
Sentinel racked up 436 yards on offense and allowed just 215 to halt the Bison, who scored on the second play of the game on a 75-yard touchdown from Levi Torgerson in the first 26 seconds but were held scoreless until the final 38 seconds when quarterback Reed Harris scored on a scramble.
After Torgerson's touchdown, Sentinel struck quickly. Sirmon guided the Spartans down the field with a big run and two plays later South scored with 3:13 left in the first quarter to tie the game. Syvrud tallied his first rushing score with eight seconds left in the opening quarter to make it 14-7.
After the Bison recovered a fumble on a bad snap on Sentinel's 24, Rausch picked off Harris and took it back 27 yards, and after some big runs from Syvrud, Bay found Zac Crews to make it 21-7.
Sentinel came out firing in the third quarter with Syvrud scoring on an 11-yard run, and just a few minutes later South added his second rushing score to make it 35-7 with 5:19 to go in the third quarter as Sentinel began to pull away.
Sirmon connected with Haiden Crews on a 43-yard touchdown with just over a minute left in the third quarter to give Sentinel its final score and force the running clock in the fourth quarter.
"They made us work and our kids responded to adversity," Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said. "You know, it wasn't obviously as clean as we want or as polished and there are probably a lot of factors with that starting with me as head coach. I've got to get that cleaned up, but shoot, we got to a running clock again. The defense gave up that big play but it was all we talked about is handling adversity. We knew these things were going to happen and these kids responded. So, super proud of that."
Great Falls was held to just 10 first downs compared to Sentinel's 22. Harris finished 15 for 27 for 79 yards and two interceptions and added 66 yards on the ground. Rafe Longin and Devron Brewer each grabbed picks for the Bison defensively.
"They're a good football team, they're big, they're physical, the thing that impressed me most in they're fast everywhere and we just don't have the speed and stuff to match up with that," Great Falls High coach Mark Samson said. "I told the kids and coaches we have to play almost a perfect game to stay with a team like that.
"I'd be very surprised if this team doesn't win state. As far as I'm concerned we've played the four best teams. We played Bozeman, we played West, we played Senior, now we played Sentinel and right now I would say Sentinel is the best of those four, just overall I think they are."
Sentinel will play the winner of Kalispell Glacier and Billings Senior in the semifinal round next week. The Spartans are aiming to be the first Missoula AA school to make the state football game since 1994.