DILLON — When Columbia Falls toppled unbeaten Billings Central in the Class A quarterfinals — setting the stage for Dillon to host the title game if it upended reigning champion Lewistown in the approaching semfiinals — the Beavers made up their minds shortly after defending their undefeated record against Havre in the quarters.
"We were like, 'This is what we've got to do,'" said senior lineman Ryleigh Plovanic. "'We've got to play a home state championship.'"
Dillon (10-0) soundly accomplished that goal as it stormed past the Eagles and now — after three seasons of failing to advance beyond the quarterfinals — is set to host Columbia Falls (9-2) on Saturday in the Beavers' first title game appearance since 2016. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Vigilante Stadium.
"It feel amazing," said senior receiver Max Davis. "In all my four years of high school so far we've never been practicing at this point. So it's just great to keep the season rolling and have one more game with the boys."
It's been seven years since Dillon punched a ticket to the Class A championship in what will be the Beavers 12th appearance in the title game since 2000. Dillon claimed eight championships across that span (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016) with the most recent title — also against Columbia Falls — coming when Troy Andersen was the Beavers quarterback.
Dillon head coach Zach McRae, who was an assistant under then head coach Rick Nordahl on that 2016 championship team, sees plenty of similarities between that team and the one that's gearing up to host the Wildcats this weekend.
"Just the tremendous athletes that we've had and the leaders that we've had," McRae said. "I think of some of those guys in the past — R.J. Fitzgerald, Troy Andersen. Those guys were just hungry all the time and they laid the groundwork for that. We're just trying to keep that going."
This year's team has an opportunity to add a ninth title to Dillon's trophy shelf, and they'll have a chance to do it in unbeaten fashion.
"The past three years we got bounced early in the playoffs, so we've been making some serious strides," said Plovanic. "It's what we've come to practice everyday to do is to get that state championship and an 11-0 championship. To get our picture up in our trophy case, it's something that every kid dreams of."
For Dillon's 11 seniors, those dreams have been scuttled by one-possession defeats early in the playoffs the past three seasons. Dillon fell at home to Miles City 26-21 in the quarterfinals of an abridged 2020 Class A playoff, lost to Sidney on the road 17-14 in the opening round of the 2021 postseason and last year was dealt another road defeat, this one a 24-21 loss to Billings Central.
Those losses stung, but heading into this season that pain galvanized this squad which rolled through the regular season and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed out of the Western A.
"This year, this team, our chemistry has just been amazing cause we've all been through the same losses," said senior receiver Cooper Anderson. "It just helped push us forward this year to get where we are now."
Dillon earned a 22-19 win over Columbia Falls on the road on Sept. 8. It was the Beavers closest margin of victory this season and their only one-possession game aside from a 28-21 win over Havre in the quarterfinals.
The Wildcats were Dillon's toughest test of the regular season, and they're expecting this second go-round — with the stakes much higher this time.
"You know how difficult it is to beat a team twice, and everybody knows that was a close game (at Columbia Falls)," said Plovanic. "They're gonna be coming down here fired up and really wanting to beat us. We've got to be ready for them."