HELENA — At one point this Frontier Conference football season, Carroll College was in the driver's seat for the league championship and a spot in the NAIA playoffs.
But a late-season lull kept the Fighting Saints out of the bracket, and missed opportunities appeared to be the theme this week for coach Troy Purcell as he wrapped up his fifth full year at the helm for the Saints.
"I guess the first game doesn't mean as much as the last game, but it does (in the) rankings, but it (also) doesn't because you gotta be on a roll late," Purcell said, alluding to the fact that Carroll split with Montana Tech this season with the Saints winning the first meeting on Aug. 31 and the Orediggers winning the second meeting on Nov. 11.
After the 21-19 win at Montana Tech to kick off the season, Carroll continued its fast start. The Saints would win their next two games by a total of four points (26-23 over No. 14 St. Thomas University and 21-20 over Rocky Mountain College) before dominating the newest member of the Frontier Conference, Arizona Christian University, 35-20 in Nelson Stadium. Purcell and the Fighting Saints would hit the road for the next two games, winning each — 43-3 at MSU-Northern and 14-6 at Eastern Oregon — to start the season 6-0.
They came back home to play No. 9 College of Idaho, led by potential NAIA player of the year Andy Peters, who threw for nearly 300 yards against the Saints and added another 82 yards on the ground to hand Carroll its first loss on the season.
After earning a 21-13 victory at Southern Oregon, the Saints closed the regular season with home losses against No. 13 Montana Western (38-17) and Montana Tech (23-17).
"Start fast, stay strong, finish fast — we just gotta win," Purcell said. "It's very disappointing. We just didn't find a way to get it done."
"They came down here and they found a way to win in Nelson Stadium," Purcell added. "We just got to perform better at home. The level of talent of who we played, you know, we lost to three ranked teams during the season and it happened to be at home. ... I don’t have any excuses. It’s something we’re going to have to ask ourselves, you know, 365 days until we open up with Montana Tech next year."
The Tech-Carroll game in the regular-season finale turned out to be a de facto playoff game, with the Orediggers clinching a spot in the NAIA playoffs with the win. Carroll's season ended with the loss and a 7-3 overall record.
“They don’t like us, we don’t like them, but after the game we wish them the best,” Purcell said of the Orediggers.
Montana Tech is coached by Kyle Samson, a former three-time all-conference player and 2006 Frontier Conference offensive player of the year under his father and head coach Mark Samson at MSU-Northern. Prior to lighting it up for the Lights, Samson was an all-state quarterback at Helena Capital High School, Purcell’s alma-mater.
Like Purcell, Samson got his coaching start in the Montana high school ranks.
“We coached against each other when he was up at Flathead (High School in Kalispell) and I was at Bozeman (High School)," Purcell said.
Now, the two former Bruins get another chance to compete against one another at the NAIA ranks, with Purcell holding a 3-2 advantage in the head-to-head series.
"Helena High, Capital, we always had that rivalry versus a crosstown situation," Purcell said. "This is similar, but they played with a lot of those kids in high school. One decided to go to Carroll and one decided to go to Tech, but it’s the same type of relationship — during the game you want to beat (them)."
Despite the unsatisfactory end to the season, Purcell, born and raised in the Capital City, is happy in his hometown of Helena.
"I like what we've got going on ... good culture here, great guys here. We’re getting the new turf and the lights now, too, and Helena is a great place. I’m very biased to the place," said Purcell. "Just fortunate to have this position and have quality guys to work with and up above who support us."
While Tech (7-3) plays host to Dickinson State (9-1) in the opening round of the NAIA playoffs Saturday, Purcell has turned to the offseason and will have his eyes on the Brawl of the Wild between Montana and Montana State.
“When I was in Bozeman, I just wanted our guys to do well," he said. "Cat-Griz is going to be a battle. It’s cool to see the young coaches get better and move forward, so I just wish them both well and keep them both healthy. Somebody’s gonna win and somebody’s gonna lose, someone’s going to feel bad and someone’s going to feel good. ... Then you gotta eat that for 365 days until you play them again and then see what the outcome is from there, but two quality programs, great coaching staffs and very exciting game to watch."