MISSOULA — Last fall was one to remember in the Garden City.
For the first time in 26 years, the city of Missoula crowned a State AA football champion when the Missoula Sentinel Spartans defeated Billings West. A lot of that talent has since graduated and moved on, but this year’s Spartan team still returns plenty of key players from that state title run, and their expectations remain just as high headed into 2021.
As special as last fall was at Sentinel, that year is well into the rear view mirror, as the Spartans now focus on defending that title this year.
"We've been chasing for as long as I've been head coach and now people are chasing us," said Dane Oliver, who enters his 10th season as the head coach of Sentinel's football team. "That year is done though, its a new season, new year. Nobody is going to remember last year once that ball kicks off Friday night.
"Just developing this team identity, we've got to start all over but it's a good spot to be in. It's what you work for, but back to work and looking forward to playing football with some fans in the stands."
They'll be tested early, as Sentinel welcomes Billings West to Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Friday in a big rematch of last year's state championship and a game that should provide a good barometer where both teams stack up.
"Us Sentinel kids, a few of us, we played those Billings West kids a lot since we were young in football, basketball, baseball in multiple state championships so we’re familiar with each other," senior cornerback and receiver Connor McCarthy said. "We respect them, we know they’re really good athletes. They’re a good team. We have really good athletes too and so I think it’s going to be a good game Friday night."
But though Sentinel lost plenty of talent from the 2020 team, they still bring key players back, headlined by Zac Crews who recently committed to the Montana Grizzlies and who will suit up at quarterback and defensive end for the Spartans.
But added into the mix are other returning starters in McCarthy, Drew Klumph, Charlie Kirgan, Chase Williams, Ramsey Knowles and Joe Weida, so plenty of talent comes back. Crews, Kirgan, Knowles and Williams were all-state performers a year ago while McCarthy and Klumph were honorable mention all-state. Oliver highlighted Peyton Stevens, JJ Dolan, Adam Jones, Kellen Curtiss as other players for Sentinel who will see their roles expanded but who saw time on last year's championship run.
"Those guys last year set a good example," Klumph, a senior safety and receiver, said. "The younger guys and now seniors, we know the model for what a championship team looks like, and I think we just try and replicate that as much as we can. Just make plays on the field and prepare like they did and then hopefully everything turns out like it did last year."
For vets like Klumph and McCarthy who started last year on defense, they will see added responsibilities this year both ways, something they've worked toward and will now reap the benefits with as new leaders for the Spartans. Klumph finished with three interceptions and 33 total tackles for the Spartans in 2019 while McCarthy picked off a pair of passes and tallied 19 total tackles as well while Crews led Sentinel in both tackles and sacks. Kirgan was tied for second with 4.5 sacks.
"You work for something like this for a long time and so being able to be a big part of this team is kind of what everybody wants," Klumph said. "Playing both ways will be really fun and I know there’s a lot of playing both ways, you’ll get tired pretty quick, so I think there’s a lot of young guys who will come help us out but I think it’ll be really fun."
"I think our younger kids are doing a really good job just developing their listening, paying attention to the older kids and seeing how it’s done," McCarthy added. "I mean they were part of a state championship too so they were around last year, they know what you have to do to win a state championship and I think we’re doing that so far."