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Red Lodge football continuing to 'trust the process' even after 2019 success

John Fitzgerald
Posted at 4:27 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 18:27:09-04

RED LODGE — After taking its lumps during the 2017 and 2018 football seasons, Red Lodge made huge strides in 2019. The Rams finished the regular season with an 8-0 record, winning the Eastern B’s No. 1 seed for the Class B state playoffs.

Once in the playoffs, Red Lodge advanced to the semifinal round, where it lost a heartbreaker to eventual state champion Eureka.

“When they were freshmen, the biggest thing that I tried to instill on them is to trust the process and understand that it’s not overnight that these things take place,” said John Fitzgerald, who is entering the fourth year of his second stint as Red Lodge’s coach. “I think they’ve really bought into that mantra. From the standpoint of, they take each day, they compete with themselves to get better each day in the weight room, they compete to get better with themselves each day on the field, and they’re all good students, too.”

Those players that were freshmen when Fitzgerald returned to the sidelines in 2017 are now seniors, and they’ve set the tone early to try to continue building on last season’s success. It won’t be easy, though: Red Lodge graduated six players who earned all-conference or all-state recognition last year.

The Rams do have a solid group of seniors, headlined by Montana State commit Elijah Reynolds. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Reynolds will play tight end for the Bobcats, but he’s a factor on both sides of the ball at Red Lodge. He was an all-state selection at both tight end and defensive line last year.

“Elijah, he’s a special one,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only does he have the talent, he has the mindset and the work ethic. He’s always asking to get in the weight room, he’s usually the first in and last to leave, too. Good leader by example for our younger kids and our other athletes.”

Jay Jetmore (running back/linebacker), Rizon Berndt (running back/defensive back) and Corby Mann (defensive line) also are back this year after all-conference seasons a year ago. Fitzgerald expects junior offensive and defensive lineman Burke Mastel to take the next step this fall, too, and quarterback Trey Allen has taken on a big leadership role. Allen will be replacing Austin Heimer in the backfield after previously suffering through some injury issues, according to Fitzgerald.

“We lost some good kids last year. We have a good crew of kids coming back,” Fitzgerald said. "The shutdown, I think, in the summer kind of put some things in perspective for kids. Once June 1 hit … and our kids were able to get back in the weight room, and they really had a good summer weightlifting program. I think they’re ready for hopefully another long haul this year.”

He added: “Right now, we’d like to see that growth from those juniors that are now seniors and obviously sophomores to juniors, see that growth from last year, the confidence continue to build and to see what we can do.”

As the team grows, so does the coach. Fitzgerald, a Columbus graduate and former University of Montana football player, previously coached Red Lodge from 2004-13. The Rams made the playoffs in each of his final three seasons during that tenure and have returned to the playoffs in 2018 (though they won only two regular-season games in 2018) and 2019.

Though fans might not see it on the sidelines, Fitzgerald claims he’s become a more patient coach over the past 16 years. He’s also tried to further empower his players by grooming leaders and giving them ownership of the team.

“Once they show that ownership of the team, then I become a facilitator,” said Fitzgerald, who has been the Red Lodge superintendent since 2014. “Obviously the head coach, but they’re on the field, they’re leading themselves. In that, they’re becoming good leaders in life, too, and that’s what we’re trying to instill. Just like with any person, with experience comes maturation, and we all start out a certain way and we all learn along the way. Always continue to learn, that’s the way I’ve always approached things. I just looked at it from a different lens when I took those three years off, and I tried to approach it that way, and it’s been successful.”

Red Lodge begins its quest to make it three consecutive playoff appearances on Friday with a 7 p.m. kickoff at Big Timber to open the season. The Rams return home next week to take on Columbus.

Both football and volleyball games at Red Lodge, which is the county seat of Carbon County, will allow fans. Each home athlete will have four tickets to distribute, and parents and guardians of visiting athletes will be allowed to attend.