MISSOULA — 1994.
That is the last time a Missoula Class AA school made the state championship football game.
And for the second time in three years, the Missoula Sentinel Spartans will aim to break that streak.
Sentinel (10-1) hosts Bozeman (9-1) on Friday at Missoula County Stadium in the semifinal round of the playoffs. Billings West and Butte will battle for the other spot in next Friday's title match.
"They're just a very well-coached team," Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said of Bozeman. "I base things a lot by special teams and they're very sound. They make you work on special teams. I know they're well-coached and I know that coach (Levi) Wesche's done a great job."
Like Sentinel, Bozeman lost a lot of players from last year's team. The Hawks made a run to the state semifinals at 11-0 before being halted by Kalispell Flathead in 2018.
But with the success Bozeman tends to have in football, Oliver isn't surprised to see the Hawks back vying for a spot in the final game of the year.
"I think when you get it rolling in a high school football program, it tends to perpetuate success," Oliver said of Bozeman's reload. "Bozeman's been a perennial power."
Sentinel, meanwhile, played in the semifinals in 2017, a loss to eventual champion Billings Senior. The storyline that has been talked about at length for the Spartans this year was the number of talented seniors they graduated from last year's roster.
But at this point, they aren't surprising anyone, and have been getting help from a few vets but many new faces as well. After topping Senior 24-14 last week, the Spartans are ready to take that next step.
"I think everyone knows their role and they know what they have to do to execute their role to be successful as a team, and we all just do that really well," senior Caden Paulson said. "I think we all knew that we'd be successful, but I didn't think we'd be this successful (at the beginning of the year) with all of the turnover. It's just nice that we could survive the massive turnover and just play really well together."
Friday's game means a little more to a guy like Paulson. A senior who starts as a defensive back, Paulson missed all of his junior year of football after fracturing his skull in a jet ski accident. Through a lot of physical therapy and training, he was able to make it back onto the field for his senior year.
"It kind of sucks that you lose a year like that, but you just kind of have to work hard in the offseason," Paulson said. "You have to embrace the moments more because you only really have one more year of varsity so you just have to work hard in the offseason to really enjoy what you have.
"You don't really know what you have until it's gone. When you go through something like that you kind of just realize what you miss so you really enjoy it."
Ironically, the 1994 state championship game featured a crosstown matchup between Missoula Big Sky and Missoula Hellgate.
Kickoff for Friday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"All year they've really played with one common mindset," Oliver said. "We're at the time of the year where you're getting rewarded for that. So practices have been sharp. It's getting dark early so we're in and out, but they're ready to go and we're excited to be on the field again on Friday night."