MISSOULA — Ever since their return to varsity football in 2017, the Missoula Hellgate Knights have made year-by-year steps to be challengers at the Class AA level.
This year the Knights come into the season deeper than years past, returning a lot of talent from last year with high expectations heading into the fall.
"It feels really good going into the season like this knowing that we’ve got a lot of guys to rely on," senior two-way lineman Tommy Nilson said. "I think it’s looking pretty good as far as getting some wins this season."
Hellgate has won six total games since the 2018 season, when they snapped their 57-game losing stretch. The Knights open the season with a home game against Great Falls CMR on Friday night.
Head coach Mick Morris said this year's start to the season has been farther along than any year he's been head coach, and that their summer workouts were the most attended they've ever been.
With the group they have back, consistency is now key.
"Yeah we do have a good group coming back but I think for us just being consistent on both sides of the ball," Morris said. "There’s games where we could outscore people and sometimes we couldn’t really stop them and I think a lot of that came down to depth because we had a lot of guys going both ways and we’re going to try and kind alleviate some of that this year, so for us it’s just not only being competitive in every game but also especially that second half."
"Our discipline maybe with snap count, O-line, our goal as a receiving group is no drops," senior safety and receiver Ian Finch said. "We try to do that every night even at practice so that’s one thing we’re really going to focus on, and then just coming out with a win that’s what we really want to do."
Finch and Nilson are two Hellgate vets who have been starting since they were sophomores for the Knights. Finch is coming off of a first team all-state season where he caught 52 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns while Nilson enters the season with interest from college football programs all across the state.
Starting lineman Layne Cooney also returns and the Knights also get back veteran running back Jake Sweatland who rushed for 228 yards in four games last year before a leg injury ended his season. Plus, the Knights return a talented junior class headlined by receiver Leo Filardi, who reeled in 31 catches for 665 yards and six touchdowns last year.
While the wins haven't added up, Hellgate has been competitive over the last few years and found itself in several shootouts, including last year's thriller with Kalispell Glacier.
Normally gassed at the end of games like that, the added depth this year will help prevent that fatigue as the Knights try to find a way to continue growing and ultimately make a run at the playoffs.
"This year when we’ve got depth, I think everybody’s going to have energy throughout the whole game and hopefully that can keep shootouts from happening and if it does we can come out with a (win)," Nilson said.
"Coach Morris has been getting on us about starting hot the first quarter, finishing strong through the fourth quarter and I think with all of the guys we have that want to win, want to compete, want to do well, that’s really what’s going to set us above," Finch added.