GRENORA, N.D. — Westby-Grenora was among the most successful 6-Man football teams of the past decade in Montana, finishing runner-up in 2014 and 2016 and winning a state title in 2017.
The Thunder were faced with a new challenge in 2020 -- a move up to the 8-Man East.
"We thought it would be harder than it is. We're kind of in a good year where we've got some bigger kids, bigger, stronger kids, that can play the more physical football," Westby-Grenora head coach and Grenora athletic director Blake Lampert said. "We had to pull some kids aside and say, 'Hey, there's now linemen. You're not going to get in the stat book, but you're important to us.'"
Currently 5-0, the Thunder knew this had the potential to be a special season, even with the jump in classification. Returning all-stater Keegan Nelson is the leader for Westby-Grenora, but there are several other weapons that make the Thunder tough to defend, as they're averaging 43.6 points per game. Darian Holocek, Nelson and running back Erik Field keep the offense ticking, but they couldn't move the chains without the hogs up front.
Spencer Rudningen, Shine Enander and Ledger Pulvermacher have been crucial to Westby-Grenora's success, paving the running lanes using their combination of strength and athleticism to exploit teams. Enander has gone through an adjustment offensively, having played in skill positions last year to now embracing the physical nature of play in the trenches. Lampert and his staff have kept it as simple as possible in the transition, though.
"We're trying to use some of those 6-Man concepts in 8-Man football," Lampert said. "We've done a lot with the jet sweep, lot of option. If we can get them outside and into space, they're used to that coming from 6-Man. We don't line it up and smash it down your throat. We use a lot of that speed that we have and try and make plays that way. We knew coming into this it would take some time for us to get into the running game of 8-Man football. "
Just because Lampert and the Thunder don't want to play smash-mouth football doesn't mean the rest of the 8-Man East won't try to run it straight downhill on Westby-Grenora. The defensive side of the ball is typically a struggle when moving from 6-Man to 8-Man, especially against teams that deploy a power-run scheme.
The Thunder ran into a physical Scobey team in Week 1 this year, putting their defense to the test right away.
"I'll be honest, we didn't know what to expect. When we get teams like Scobey that would line it up and run right at you, we weren't used to that. That was our biggest question mark, was will we have a defense to stop that?" Lampert said. "We stepped up huge. We played them straight up and kept them to 22 points. That was a huge win for us on the defensive side of the ball."
Little did Lampert and the Thunder know that 28-22 win against Scobey could potentially be the difference between home-field advantage in the playoffs or hitting the road. After Scobey beat reigning state champion Fairview last week, Westby-Grenora is in the driver's seat in the 8-Man East. Those 22 points also marked the most the Thunder had given up this year until last week's 52-24 win over Culbertson.
Westby-Grenora can all but clinch the 8-Man East regular-season title this weekend with a win against the defending champion Warriors, but, even after a 30-point loss to Scobey, Lampert knows not to overlook Fairview.
"For starters, we’re going to need to be physical. We’re going to need to out-work them and be physical on both sides of the ball. They know how to play football. They know how to play 8-Man football and they’re a tough team. We’re going to need to match that toughness right out of the gate," Lampert said. “I think they’re starting to realize the importance. If we get this one, we’ve got to get by Ekalaka, too, but if we get this one there’s a great chance that we come out and run the table on the conference. There’s a lot of focus going on right now. I can see it in the kids that they’re getting ready for a big one on Friday.”
Friday's game is slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff in Fairview. A win over the Warriors puts another conference championship in reach for Westby-Grenora and a playoff berth on the horizon.
"We’re kind of getting a football culture here in Grenora and Westby from our past successes in football. That’s huge. These kids are coming up now and they want to replicate that and do well themselves," Lampert said. "They kind of wanted to do it in 6-Man, but now we’re moving up. We’ve been blessed with the numbers so we’re moving up to 8-Man and they’re going to do it a little differently than their brothers.”