BILLINGS -- Friday's Class AA football semifinal showdown between Billings West and Bozeman High had the feel of Friday the 13th even before kickoff.
The contest actually stalled before it started. Kickoff was close to an hour late after Bozeman’s team buses were delayed on the way to Billings when traffic was shut down on Interstate 90 due to dangerous winds in the Livingston area. Traffic was rerouted through town at a stand-still. When the Hawks finally arrived at about 6:15 p.m., the 7 p.m. start was postponed to 7:45.
Hard to know how either team would respond with hype building not only throughout the week, but especially throughout game day.
“I mean, we were a little jittery in there (locker room)," Bears linebacker/receiver Neil Daily told MTN Sports after the game. "We just wanted to get out — we’re so jittery in there, we hate waiting for stuff to happen. We just want to go, go, go. That was kind of our mindset. We just wanted to get in, play hard.”
“I thought it was kind of going to help us because we just want to play," said West's Taco Dowler, who fills roles at receiver, defensive back and kick and punt returner. "It’s like holding dogs in a cage, we just want to get out and play, so it helped us.”
The delay appeared to favor West when Riley Bergeson intercepted a pass on Bozeman’s opening drive. But in Friday the 13th fashion, it was called off for a late hit on the quarterback and Bozeman capped the drive with a 7-0 lead.
But the Hawks would turn it over twice, leading to 10 West High points and eventually a 17-7 Bears lead in the second quarter.
Bozeman answered by scoring the next 10 points to tie it at 17 late in the third. What happened next was more deja vu than Friday the 13th.
Three weeks ago to the night Bozeman controlled a 19-16 lead on Elijah Eckles' field goal with just less than six minutes left. On the ensuing kickoff, Dowler raced back a giant return inside the Bozeman 35-yard line. A couple plays later West quarterback Isaiah Claunch lobbed a pass to Dowler for the game winner. Final score of that regular-season meeting: 23-19 Bears.
Fast forward back to semifinal night after Bozeman scored to knot it at 17, the Hawks again kicked to Dowler, who didn't need Claunch this time. Following blocks and finding holes, Dowler sprinted in from 96 yards for the game winner. Final score of the semifinal matchup: 24-17 Bears.
“I was on the sideline and knew we just needed one right now, we just needed one to get ahead and Taco is the guy," Daily recalled of watching the return. "He’s probably the best returner in the state right now. He can break them, find a crease and with his small little legs just take off.”
With his "small little legs," here’s what Dowler saw:
“I don’t know, I can’t remember it, the game kind of slows down and I just try to find a hole and burst through it," he said.
As for the possibility of getting caught?
"(Bozeman's) Luke Fedyk is pretty fast, I was thinking in the back of my mind that he’s pretty fast but," Dowler said, "I don’t know, I’m pretty fast, too.”
You can’t teach speed and it was the intangible difference maker in both games against Bozeman this season. But much like the first meeting, neither offense really had anywhere to run on Friday the 13th. Defense ultimately locked it down for West with a pair of fourth-down stops to end it.
“This game was, it almost felt like Butte last year, like a college atmosphere," Bears running back/defensive back Michael DeLeon told MTN Sports. "Everyone was excited, there’s no student section but all the parents were going for us, everyone was loud and it was probably the best game we’ve ever had, in my opinion.”
With Friday the 13th out the window, a pair of unbeatens will settle the score in next week's State AA title tilt when West hosts a Missoula Sentinel team that hasn’t played in a title game since 1984 and hasn’t won it since 1972.
Barring any acts of nature, kickoff is set for 7 p.m.