The final weekend of September brought with it several pivotal high school football games in regard to conference championship races.
Kalispell Glacier is still in the hunt for a regular-season title in the Western AA, but Missoula Sentinel continues to decimate its opponents. Two teams remain unbeaten atop the Eastern AA, too, but that will change soon.
2019 was a down year of sorts for Billings Central, but the Rams once again look like a contender in the Eastern A after taking down their rival in Week 5. Hamilton continues to roll in the Western A, but there’s finally a little clarity behind the Broncs, at least for now.
Red Lodge was on the Class B radar entering the season, but the Rams faltered early to Columbus and now find themselves in a muddled Eastern B. The Northern B has some really good teams at the top of the conference, as the top three have a combined record of 11-0 on the season.
The weekend’s biggest surprise was in the 8-Man East, where defending champion Fairview now finds itself staring down a road game in the opening round of the playoffs. The 8-Man West is in an odd scenario after Drummond-Philipsburg and Thompson Falls drubbed their Week 5 opponents. Joliet is now in control of the 8-Man South after a monster win on Friday.
It doesn’t appear there’s anything that's going to stop Shields Valley from its second consecutive 6-Man South regular-season title after the Rebels won at home in Week 5. Froid-Medicine Lake is officially on the radar of other 6-Man teams, as the Redhawks are now atop the 6-Man East, the conference that has produced three consecutive 6-Man state champions. Power-Dutton-Brady survived a matchup of 6-Man North unbeatens and has an inside track to a home game in the opening round of the playoffs.
As regular-season title races come into focus, that and more highlight what caught my eye during Week 5 of the high school football season.
- The Western AA has three teams that have separated from the rest of the pack and are battling for the regular-season conference title. Helena High, Kalispell Glacier and Missoula Sentinel improved to 3-0 over the weekend and have set up quite a finish. The three squads will all face off with each other over the final three weeks of the regular season. While there will be six playoff teams out of the Western AA, only the top two will play at home in the second round, putting extra importance on the final three weeks of the year.
- Billings Senior blasted Belgrade, 59-21, in Week 5 and Billings West blanked Bozeman Gallatin, 70-0, as both teams are a perfect 3-0. There will only be one unbeaten after Week 6, though, as Senior and West will battle on Friday night. Also of note in the Eastern AA, Billings Skyview snapped its 22-game losing streak with a 20-0 win over Great Falls CMR.
- Billings Central won the 2018 state title, but the Rams were bounced in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. Central looks like it's going to be among the Eastern A's best once again, though. The Rams took down rival Laurel on the road in Week 5, 28-14. Central and Miles City are now the lone unbeatens in the Eastern A, but the two sides don't play for a few weeks still. Behind a multi-pronged rushing attack, the Rams are back.
- Hamilton held off Frenchtown in Week 5 to improve to 5-0 and keep hold of the top spot in the Western A. With Class A only taking four teams from each conference, there likely won't be the tiebreaker scenario there was in the Western A in 2019. With that said, there are three 4-1 teams behind Hamilton, as Dillon, Columbia Falls and Libby all won in Week 5. Libby handed Polson its second defeat of the season in a pivotal mid-season matchup. Libby's only loss came by two at Columbia Falls, but the Loggers finish the year with Dillon, Hamilton and Frenchtown. Libby will likely need to win one of those games to lock up a playoff spot.
- Red Lodge lost in Week 2 to Columbus, but it was a non-conference game so it wasn't too alarming. Week 5's loss to Huntley Project should be, though. The Red Devils scored with less than five seconds remaining to win the game and jump ahead of the Rams in the Eastern B and put Red Lodge in a tough situation. Project had a one-point loss to Shepherd or it would be atop the conference. Shepherd leads the Eastern B at 1-0, but the Mustangs have been beaten soundly by Glasgow and Malta this season. Red Lodge will have a shot at Shepherd this year, but depending on how the tiebreakers work the Rams could still be on the road in the opening round of the playoffs.
- The Northern B has three teams atop the conference -- Glasgow, Fairfield and Malta -- that have combined to go 11-0 this season. Glasgow and Malta have looked particularly impressive in the first half of the 2020 season, including the aforementioned wins over Shepherd, the current leader in the Eastern B. The final four weeks will provide clarity into how the conference championship race will shake out, but don't be surprised if all three teams win games in the opening round of the playoffs regardless of where they're playing.
- Defending 8-Man state champion Fairview was cruising along this season until the Warriors ran into rival Scobey in Week 5. The Spartans handed Fairview a 36-6 defeat, Scobey's first win over Fairview since 2011. Fairview is suddenly in third in the 8-Man East and is going to be fighting for a chance at a home playoff game in Week 6 against Westby-Grenora. The Thunder, playing their first season of 8-Man football, beat Scobey in their season opener and can put a stranglehold on the 8-Man East this weekend.
- Drummond-Philipsburg was not a friendly visitor in Charlo last weekend, as the Titans handed the Vikings a 46-0 loss. That result, along with Thompson Falls' 52-0 win over Arlee, has positioned the Titans atop the 8-Man West with the Bluehawks as unbeaten teams. Drummond-Philipsburg and Thompson Falls won't play this season, and, due to the Titans' canceled game in Week 1, Thompson Falls will play one more game in the regular season than Drummond-Philipsburg. Will Thompson Falls be the conference's No. 1 seed and take home field advantage through at least the first two rounds due to the earlier cancellation? How will the 8-Man West shake out in the final weeks?
- Joliet is in the driver's seat of the 8-Man South after a statement win over Twin Bridges in Week 5, 62-12. Joliet lost four games by single digits last season, but that hasn't been an issue in 2020. The J-Hawks could have potentially had their toughest game of the season in Week 1 when they beat Shelby, 46-26, as the rest of the 8-Man South doesn't appear to be on the level of Joliet.
- Shields Valley is on track for its second consecutive unbeaten regular season and 6-Man South conference title. The Rebels beat Broadview-Lavina in Week 5, 50-30, to take complete control of the conference and hand the Pirates their first loss of the season. Not only was it Broadview-Lavina's first loss, it was the first points it had given up all season after outscoring its first three opponents 218-0. While the Rebels have essentially locked up the conference, Broadview-Lavina will be playing for the conference's No. 2 seed in Week 6.
- As mentioned earlier, the 6-Man East has produced the 6-Man state champion each of the past three seasons. In fact, the conference has had a team in the title game in five of the past six seasons. If that streak is to continue, it will likely fall upon Froid-Medicine Lake, which is unbeaten atop the conference after a 73-36 win over previously unbeaten Richey-Lambert. The 6-Man East has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in 2020, so there could be some long road trips for visiting teams in the postseason.
- Power-Dutton-Brady kept its perfect record intact with a 41-22 win over previously unbeaten Sunburst, keeping the Titans' 6-Man North conference title hopes alive. PDB is staring down the barrel of facing Big Sandy in Week 7 with the 6-Man North title on the line after opening the season 3-0. Sunburst will now be fighting for its playoff life, as the only 6-Man conference taking four teams to the playoffs this year is the East.