WILSALL — Mitch Ward is accustomed to 6-Man success.
A 2013 graduate of Denton High School, Ward was part of three teams that advanced to the 6-Man state championship game. The Trojans won titles his sophomore and junior years.
So Ward, who is now in his fourth year as the head coach at Shields Valley, knows exactly what a championship culture looks like.
“We’ve done a really good job of establishing the football culture that we want here in Shields Valley,” he said. “You can just tell, Year 4, first day of practice, our senior leaders that have been with me for four years, they stepped up and they showed our juniors through freshmen what they’re expected to do at practice. The freshmen coming in, since the last three years they’ve been with our junior high coach, too, they came into Day 1 of high school football practice and they knew what to expect and they knew the culture that we’re building. It’s been really good to see how that’s been able to change into what I envision our culture here is.”
To Ward, the culture is limited to the players and coaches in the football practices. That culture extends to the school and community, and he’s seen that excitement increase over the past four years.
Of course, winning helps, and the Rebels have advanced to the 6-Man state playoffs each of the past three years. Last year, they won the 6-Man South to earn a No. 1 seed for the playoffs, which they used to defeat Geraldine-Highwood in the first round. Shields Valley’s 2019 season ended in the second round with a 41-19 loss to eventual runner-up Wibaux.
“Right now, we’ve kind of laid it out that our Day 1 goal is to be conference champions again. That’s what we’re focused on, is to put ourselves in position to win the conference and get the No. 1 seed and see where that takes us in the playoffs,” Ward said.
Like most 6-Man teams, health will be key for Shields Valley, but the Rebels do have a solid foundation of returning talent. They have four starters back from last year’s team, including all-state selections Aidan Jenkins and Dylan Flatt. Kaden Acosta was a 2019 all-conference choice, and Kade Lannen also returns after starting at defensive end last year as a freshman.
“This year he’s going to be playing two sides of the ball,” Ward said of Lannen. “He showed up to the first day of practice a different kid. You can tell he made that freshman-to-sophomore leap, and he’s ready to play both ways and make a huge impact for us.”
Ward also has high expectations for his freshman class, which includes four players.
“I’ve never had, since I’ve been here, a freshman class where I believe all four players can go onto a varsity football field and make an impact for us,” Ward said. “Just coming from a junior high program, which is in a really good spot, I think all four are going to make an impact for us on a varsity football field this year.”
As high as Ward might be on some of the younger players in the program, the Rebels will still likely go as far as their experienced upperclassmen can take them.
Jenkins is one of the best players in 6-Man football and can affect the game in a variety of ways. On offense, he has game-breaking potential as both a runner and receiver. Defensively, he occupies the back end as a playmaking safety. Jenkins also brings that needed senior leadership, both by his words and his actions.
“This is (Jenkins’) senior year. He’s the one who expects every player on the team to practice and to show up in the weight room and to work just as hard as he does every day. He’s been doing a really good job of that,” Ward said.
And Flatt, a junior, has the role of filling the void created by Emmett Gilbert’s graduation. Gilbert earned all-state recognition at linebacker last year after recording 130 tackles.
According to Ward, Flatt has been up to the task through the early part of fall practices.
“We’re kind of asking him to move into Emmett’s spot and be our defensive leader and play that middle linebacker position,” Ward said last week. “And so far, through the first nine or 10 practices, it looks like he’s ready to do that.”
“I think things have been going really well,” Ward added. “We have 11 players out this year, which is exactly what we’ve expected. Those same 11 guys, we’ve been doing football workouts since we were allowed to start on July 1, so pretty much we’ve been together since then. This first week of practice, I’ve been really pleased with the work effort and how together our guys show up to practice, and it’s been really good.”
Shields Valley kicks off its season at Reed Point-Rapelje at 7 p.m. Friday.