It's been a long five months and change without sanctioned high school sporting events in Montana. There were times this summer where I wasn't sure whether I'd get to write about sports again, much less football this fall. But there are three words I've been chomping at the bit to say: Football. Is. Back.
It's going to be a season like nothing we've seen in our lifetimes. Fan attendance around the state has been limited to immediate family members, and in the case of Yellowstone County there will be no spectators. There will be some eerie moments, undoubtedly. Limited or no fans will be able to boo officials or cheer for game-changing touchdowns or turnovers. But nonetheless, the season will kick off in a matter of hours.
Defending state champions Bozeman, Miles City, Eureka, Fairview and Jordan will buckle their chinstraps with the hopes of adding hardware to their respective trophy cases. Games kick off as early as Friday evening, but Class AA has eliminated non-conference games, while several Class A schools have, too. The first scheduled Class AA game is between Bozeman and Billings Senior on Thursday, Sept. 10. Class A will kick off its season on the opening weekend, though, as will Class B, 8-Man and 6-Man.
There won't be any Class AA football for two weeks, as the non-conference games were canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Once Bozeman and Senior kick it off, the Hawks will be chasing their third state championship in six years. Repeating will likely be difficult for the Hawks this year with Bozeman Gallatin High School making its start in Class AA. However, the Hawks have returning Class AA defensive MVP and Montana State University commit Kenneth Eiden IV coming back.
One team likely to be in the mix is Missoula Sentinel. The Spartans fell in last year's semifinals against Bozeman, 28-21, but they bring back a roster ready to lead the program to its first state championship game since 1984. Versatile offensive lineman Dylan Rollins headlines the roster, which also features returning all-conference selections Soren Syvrud, Charlie Kirgan, TJ Rausch, Daniel Dilfort, Geno Leonard and Donovan South, Zach Crews and quarterback Dalton Bay, who should only improve as a junior.
Billings Senior could be a team to watch, as the Broncs bring back all-state wideout Junior Bergen and all-conference selections Jackson Burckley, Thomas Klepps, Alex Allred, Caleb Romero, Johnnie McClusky, and Peyton Morton. Senior was the last Class AA team to repeat as state champions in 2016 and 2017.
Billings West lost a few key contributors, but returners such as Taco Dowler and Neil Daily, and head coach Rob Stanton will likely keep the Golden Bears in contention.
Miles City closed out the 2010s by book-ending the decade with state titles. The Cowboys were incredibly efficient offensively last year, while pairing that with a shutdown defense. A large chunk of Miles City's starters have graduated, but there's plenty of firepower back to be considered among the favorites again in Class A in 2020. All-state and record-breaking quarterback Carson Hunter returns to guide the offense, and he'll have a few weapons back, too. All-state wide receiver Jayden Venable returns and Damian Leidholt, who carried the football at times last season, is expected to take a leap this season. The Cowboys were strong on the offensive and defensive lines last year, but Jessy Chapweske returns to anchor a young group. Don't be surprised if Miles City is playing late in November once again.
Laurel lost only two games last season, but both came against Miles City, including the state championship game. The Locomotives return all-state quarterback and all-conference safety Eli Aby, who is also a Montana State University commit. Joining Aby is all-state corner and all-conference wide receiver Jack Waddel. Laurel is replacing both of its all-state running backs, but it might not matter who runs behind the Locomotive offensive line. All-conference returnees Connor Ulschak, Gabe Hernandez and Shel Osborne will give Laurel plenty of experience up front. Add in all-conference defensive end Landen Baxter and all-conference corner Emmett Renner and Laurel will be a power in the Eastern A.
The Western A will likely be quite competitive at the top. Hamilton might suffer a slight dip without Carson Rostad, who is now at the University of Montana, but Tyson Rostad will take over the quarterback position in 2020. He'll have all-state wide receiver Jaiden Klemundt back, as well as all-state tackle Tyler Burrows. Carter Lake could be a guy to watch on the offensive side of the ball for the Broncs, too.
Dillon and Whitefish are two more teams to watch in the Western A. Dillon, a perennial contender, will have all-state defensive lineman Zeke Ellis and all-state safety Michael Hupp back, as well as all-conference wideout Cole Truman and all-conference safety Jace Fitzgerald. Whitefish could be the sleeper team out west, as the Bulldogs return some talented young guys. All-conference corner Jaxsen Schlauch and all-conference safety Bodi Smith are looking to lead this team to the next level after falling to Frenchtown in the opening round of the 2019 playoffs.
Eureka has won three of the past four Class B state football championships. The Lions seem to reload no matter what they lose, but this year Eureka will need to replace one of the winningest senior classes you'll see. Eureka landed seven guys on the first-team all-conference list last year, but only Gavin Pilkington returns from that group. Johnny Fehr and Dan Dunn are the only other returning all-conference selections for Eureka, but we've seen this team not skip a beat after losing some serious talent.
Manhattan reached last year's title game before falling to Eureka, but the Tigers expect to make another run this fall. Manhattan will return all-conference picks Gabe Delgatty, Toby Veltkamp, Isaac Richardson and the explosive Caden Holgate. Replacing all-state quarterback Lane Veltkamp will be the most important step for Manhattan this year. If the Tigers have their solution at quarterback, watch out.
Another of Eureka's playoff victims was Red Lodge, which lost to the Lions 39-35 in the semifinals. Red Lodge is going to be a problem in the Eastern B this season. Montana State University commit and all-state tight end and defensive lineman Elijah Reynolds headlines the Rams' returnees. All-conference running back and linebacker Jay Jetmore will likely shoulder a big offensive load this season, as will returning all-conference running back and corner Rizon Berndt, as the Rams are replacing all-state running back Finn Davis. Corby Mann returns to lead the Red Lodge front offensively and defensively, as the Rams will likely make another deep postseason run.
I'm interested to see what happens in the Northern B this year. Fairfield has been the usual suspect, but Glasgow and Malta both return strong cores and could challenge the Eagles for the conference title. Can Florence or Missoula Loyola do the same with Eureka this year? Florence has a handful of all-conference picks returning and could find itself playing late in the season.
The 2019 Fairview Warriors were about as dominant of an 8-Man football team as you'll come across. The Warriors won the 8-Man title game 70-6 last fall. Fairview graduated 11 seniors off its roster, but it is well-equipped to pick up right where it left off. All-state sophomore Hunter Sharbono, all-state seniors Brady Buxbaum and Easton Hopes will likely keep Fairview up to its winning ways. Depth and avoiding injury will be key for the Warriors this year, as the loss of 11 seniors is accompanied by 10 freshmen joining the team.
Alberton-Superior finished runner-up to Fairview last fall, but the Mountain Cats bring back some weapons with their high-flying offense that are capable of keeping them in the championship hunt. All-state quarterback Bryan Mask headlines the roster that also returns all-stater Jake Calloway and all-conference center Aaron Waddle. Replacing the production on both sides of the ball from offensive and defensive MVP Trey Green will be the biggest question mark for Alberton-Superior. With Green gone, which Mountain Cats will step up?
Fort Benton figures to be in the playoff picture late in the season once again, as the Longhorns look to improve upon last year's semifinal loss to Fairview. Fort Benton has a handful of all-conference selections back, including all-state picks Jace Thompson and Hayden Diekhans. All-conference picks William Ullery, Brock Hanford and Hayden Axtman also return, but the Longhorns will need to replace quarterback Garrett Diekhans. With so much production and experience returning, Fort Benton is a safe bet to compete for a conference title in the always-competitive 8-Man North.
Don't let Drummond-Philipsburg slip through the cracks. The Titans, who won back-to-back 8-Man title in 2017 and 2018, finished fourth in the 8-Man West last season but return all-state quarterback and safety Kade Cutler, who is a Montana State University commit. Drummond-Philipsburg will need running back Preston Metesh, who is the only other returning all-conference pick, and others to step up if its to make another deep run in the postseason, something Titan fans have become accustomed to.
There's going to be no shortage of contenders for the throne, though. Circle and Scobey should give Fairview a test in the 8-Man East while Joliet, Great Falls Central, Shelby and Thompson Falls will likely be competing for playoff spots, too.
Jordan won its first state football title last year in dominant fashion over rival Wibaux, 70-14. The Mustangs graduated five all-state seniors from that roster, though, as junior Dawson Murnion will be the key returning piece for Jordan. The 6-Man East will likely be wide open this season. Wibaux graduated do-everything star Tel Lunde and Gavin Nelson but brings back all-state picks Colton Miske and Wyatt Davis. Richey-Lambert and its explosive offensive will be a team to watch, as will Savage. Perennial 6-Man power Westby-Grenora has moved up to 8-Man.
Big Sandy looks like the presumptive preseason favorite in 6-Man this season, as the Pioneers are loaded again this year after last year's semifinal loss to Jordan. All-state picks Kade Strutz and Parker Proulx and all-conference selection Brady Pleninger highlight a strong, experienced roster. Big Sandy will have to deal with Power-Dutton-Brady as its primary competition for the 6-Man North title. That conference title would likely be just a check mark on Big Sandy's list of goals in 2020.
Look out for Shields Valley and Hot Springs this year, too. Shields Valley brings back all-state picks Aidan Jenkins and Dylan Flatt from last year's 6-Man South championship team, as well as all-conference pick Kaden Acosta. The Rebels have the top-end talent and experience to compete with the best teams in the state, but depth will be key. Hot Springs has become a consistent contender in 6-Man football and 2020 should not be any different. Juniors Kyle Lawson and Jack McAllister will leaned upon heavily to replace the production of Brandon Knudsen. Lawson was an all-state pick last year while McAllister garnered all-conference honors.
Games to watch this weekend
- Dillon at Frenchtown, 7 p.m. Friday
- Whitefish at Libby, 7 p.m. Friday
- Bigfork at Townsend, 7 p.m. Friday
- Fort Benton at Ennis, 7 p.m. Friday
- Scobey at Westby-Grenora, 7 p.m. Friday
- Shelby at Joliet, 1 p.m. Saturday
- Shields Valley at Reed Point-Rapelje, 7 p.m. Friday
- Valier at Big Sandy, 7 p.m. Friday
- Geraldine-Highwood at Centerville, 1 p.m. Saturday