BOZEMAN — For the first time in 18 years, Kalispell Flathead is going to the Class AA state championship football game. The Braves went on the road and knocked off No. 1 and previously unbeaten Bozeman 21-17 on Friday.
Bozeman trailed 21-17 late in the fourth quarter. After the Hawks drove into Flathead territory, they turned the ball over on downs when quarterback Kris Brown was tackled short of the line to gain. Flathead turned to its record-breaking tailback, Blake Counts, to ice the game, as he picked up a pair of first downs to bleed out the clock.
Early on, it looked as if Bozeman would continue its unbeaten season and waltz into the title game. Everest Klein made a 26-yard field goal midway through the first quarter to put the Hawks on the board, then Brown threw a 17-yard touchdown to Ryan Simpson, putting Bozeman up 10-0 after the first quarter.
But Counts and the Flathead offense answered right back. On its ensuing possession, Flathead marched down the field in less than two minutes, capping the drive with a 2-yard rushing touchdown by Counts. Bozeman carried that 10-7 advantage into the halftime break.
On the opening possession of the second half, Flathead again marched down the field quickly, scoring in less than two minutes. This time, it was quarterback Jaden MacNeil finding the end zone on a keeper from 7 yards out. The Braves’ 14-10 lead stood through the remainder of the quarter with both teams trading punts.
Bozeman retook the lead at the 9:50 mark of the fourth quarter when McCade O’Reilly plunged in from 2 yards out to give the Hawks a 17-14 lead. However, Flathead’s offense again answered the bell. The Braves capped a long scoring drive with their first touchdown through the air. MacNeil gave a beautiful play-action fake to Counts before finding Anthony Jones at the front pylon, giving Flathead a 21-17 lead with 5:09 to play.
The Flathead defense stood tall, forcing Bozeman to turn the ball over on downs and allowing the offense to milk the final minutes off the clock.
Flathead will once again be on the road next week. The Braves travel to face Billings West, which topped Helena High 34-0 in the other semifinal. It will be Flathead’s first appearance in the state title game since 2000 when the Braves lost to Helena Capital 35-6. Flathead has six state championships, the most recent coming in 1970 when Flathead was awarded the championship despite no game being played.