(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen. We featured tight ends last week and focus this week on wide receivers.)
Defensive backs: No. 5 – Shann Schillinger, Baker; No. 4 – Greg Carothers, Helena Capital; No. 3 – Kane Ioane, Billings Skyview; No. 2 – Colt Anderson, Butte; No. 1 – Tim Hauck, Big Timber.
Defensive linemen: No. 5 – Kroy Biermann, Hardin; No. 4 – Pete Lazetich, Billings Senior; No. 3 – Mitch Donahue, Billings West; No. 2 – Dwan Edwards, Columbus; No. 1 – Mike Tilleman, Chinook.
Linebackers: No. 5 – Pat Taylor, Great Falls CMR; No. 4 – Mark Fellows, Choteau; No. 3 – Jason Crebo, Helena Capital; No. 2 – Jim Kalafat, Great Falls CMR; No. 1 – Corey Widmer, Bozeman.
Offensive lineman: No. 5 – Barry Darrow, Great Falls CMR; No. 4 – Mike Person, Glendive; No. 3 – Sonny Holland, Butte; No. 2 – Kirk Scrafford, Billings West; No. 1 – Pat Donovan, Helena High.
Tight ends: No. 5 – Will Dissly, Bozeman; No. 4 – Joe Bignell, Deer Lodge; No. 3 – Brian Salonen, Great Falls High; No. 2 – Mark Gilman, Kalispell Flathead; No. 1 – Casey Fitzsimmons, Chester.
No. 5 wide receiver – Gabe Sulser, Billings Senior
There have been a few active players on the #MTTop40, but Gabe Sulser is the first person to crack the list without yet playing a down in college. His high school career at Billings Senior was that special.
Gabe Sulser stat sheet
After first arriving on the Montana sports scene in 2011 when Billings’ Big Sky All-Stars advanced to the Little League World Series, Sulser burst onto the football scene as a freshman at Billings Senior High in 2014. In his first varsity game, he caught two passes for 63 yards, taking one 59 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown to help the Broncs to a 30-27 win over visiting Butte. That touchdown – a pass from future Gatorade player of the year Nathan Dick – was a sign of things of come for Sulser and the Broncs. They went 6-5 that 2014 season, losing to Great Falls CMR in the first round of the Class AA state playoffs.
Senior would play in the next three State AA championship games, losing at Bozeman in 2015 before claiming consecutive titles in 2016 and 2017. Sulser was a centerpiece of it all, totaling 261 receptions for 4,007 yards and 50 touchdowns, all of which are believed to be Montana 11-man records. Sulser added another 30 touchdowns on the ground and in the return game as he became a four-time all-state player, thrice earning first-team recognition. During Sulser’s sophomore, junior and senior seasons, Senior compiled a 37-2 record, including back-to-back 13-0 seasons in 2016 and 2017.
Sulser was named the Class AA offensive MVP and Montana’s Gatorade player of the year after the 2017 season in which he caught 85 passes for 1,109 yards and 11 touchdowns. He added 997 rushing yards and 16 TDs on 106 carries. The 5-foot-9 receiver will continue his career at the University of Montana.
… on Sulser:
Gabe Sulser’s father and Billings Senior assistant coach Mark Sulser: “I remember the first time he got in. He had actually played in the sophomore game that day. They played Butte, they had a 3:00 game. Then the 7:00 game was the varsity game. One of the receivers got hurt. He went in and played towards the end of the first half and then the entire second half as a receiver. Then he caught a ball that kind of won the game for us. I mean, obviously there was more to it than just the one play, but that was the score that – it was a tight game and that ended up being the difference in the game, I guess, at that time. Not every kid gets to grow up on the sideline. Some kids, they start out and they go through the process of spending some time maybe with their friends as a ball boy or whatever. But Gabe was catching PATs and being a ball boy since he was old enough. We always said you had to be 12 years old for safety reasons. I think he started when he was 5. You just couldn’t keep him out of there. So he was super comfortable in that setting, but he always was humble. He really does not want to put out there that he’s any more special or different than anybody else. He just wants to be a regular kid. But when the lights go on or whatever, he plays with a little bit of an edge. All bets are off once the game starts, I guess.
“The thing that comes to mind, before we played CMR his junior year, we were having a lighter practice on Thursday and he felt like he sprained his ankle. This was like Game 6, so we still had four more regular-season games and three playoff games, and he was really concerned about it. I’m like, ‘Can you go?’ And I talked to coach (Chris) Murdock and the trainers and treated it like it was a sprained ankle, so he played that game and then the rest of the season and through the state-championship game. After further review, we found out he had a broken bone in his foot that he played through. I don’t know if that’s the evolution, but he has made big strength gains and size gains since he was a freshman. But I think he learned to sort of play with injury and compartmentalize some of that stuff and still be effective. I think that’s one of the things that if you do get banged up, you have an ability to continue and use your survival skills to still be a contributor to the team.
“There seems to be that spot still to this day, and maybe even more than ever, for that slot that is one-on-one with a linebacker. I think that’s one of the things – Gabe never played slot, he was always an outside guy. Our X was kind of the featured player in our offense, was always the outside guy just because the way we were set up. Now he’s going to move inside and hopefully get some of those one-on-one situations with linebackers. The other thing is, depending on where you are, if you’re in a traditional or pro-type offense and there’s two or three tight ends, that’s the time you want to be in the game. You might be a slot, but you might be playing outside, because now you know you’re going to be one-on-one. One-on-one’s not the best situation for everybody, but for that 5-9, 170-pound receiver that has forward, back-and-forth speed and then side-to-side, it’s a pretty valuable position, really.
“You don’t take (the back-to-back undefeated seasons) for granted, but as you remind yourself to enjoy the ride as the season goes on, you’re just subtly amazed every time you win a game. You’re just one after another. Who’s going to step up tonight? Who’s going to make the big play? To have your son be a big part of it – although he was pretty blessed, he’s had some great teammates the last few years – but for him to be a part of that, you really can’t put words to it. I think what’s going to happen is down the road as we look back on this, we’re going to think, ‘Wow, that was a pretty special deal.’”
Bozeman coach Levi Wesche: “You just can’t put a hand on (Gabe Sulser). The thing was, he got so much stronger from his sophomore year to his junior and senior year. His sophomore year, you felt like if you could put a hand on him, you could get him to the ground. His junior and senior year, it didn’t matter. You had to gang-tackle him and you had to have three guys on him because he was strong enough where, if you tried to arm-tackle him, he would run through you. Obviously, once he broke the first tackle it was lights out. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a faster, flat fast human being, play football in Montana. Just unbelievable.
“I think Gabe would have been a tailback the way the offenses were before and he probably still would have been a Gatorade player of the year at tailback. I don’t know how many rushing yards he had this year, it was pretty close to 1,000. I could see teams running toss sweep with him and still have nobody be able to tackle him. Yes, he’s perfect (for today’s game) because he got to stretch the field more and so some of that stuff, the screen game is a lot different than it was before, but as far as running the football and being a force on the field, I don’t think that would have changed. I think he’d still be as dominant (then) as he was now.
“I can only think of one other guy and that’s (former Helena Capital receiver) Matt Miller. To me, those two are the top two in my opinion that I’ve seen in high school football, as far as playmakers. He is a special kid. The only thing you can say, you look at the amount of big plays he’s had in his four years, those big plays, those win games. That’s what breaks games open.”