MISSOULA — The Missoula Sentinel Spartans had plenty of questions coming into the Class AA football season.
After graduating over 20 seniors from last year’s team, Sentinel had numerous starting positions and holes to fill as it entered the 2019 season.
Now, the Spartans sit at 7-1 and host Kalispell Glacier on Friday night to wrap up the regular season.
A big part of Sentinel’s success has come from junior quarterback Dayton Bay. Bay stepped in as the replacement of two-year starter Rylan Ortt, who now plays football at Montana State.
Bay hit the ground running but Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said he could see that potential lining up during summer workouts.
“I think it always goes back to kids' work ethic and their commitment to the team,” Oliver said. “He’s a kid that is very cerebral, knows the game, and understands his strengths and weaknesses and knows how to play those strengths up and diminish his weaknesses.
“Biggest things we talk about with quarterbacks is decision-making and he has the ability to make great decisions under tremendous pressure.”
Bay was not a varsity football player as a sophomore. Instead, he used his time on junior varsity and in the offseason to get stronger and hone in his skills.
“It’s been a big process. It started in the offseason, I want to say, way back in March and just working everyday with the coaches going through schemes and all that kind of stuff,” Bay said. “And then just getting to bond with the rest of my teammates. I felt like that has really brought us to be a good team.”
Coming into this season, Bay and sophomore Zac Crews were in a quarterback battle for the starting spot. While Bay ultimately won, Sentinel has a few packages for Crews who rotates into the game under center occasionally. He’ll also line up to catch passes too.
That friendly competition is another reason why Oliver says Bay has been able to thrive because complacency hasn’t been an issue.
“It’s amazing what competition will do for an athlete,” Oliver said. “It forces you to step up and rise up and so they’ve played off each other. It makes the whole team go when your quarterbacks are great competitors.”
Bay knew filling Ortt’s shoes would be a large task, but his goal was to play within his own game and focus on the team. There were nerves for sure, but Bay said Sentinel’s Week 5 matchup with Butte, a close 39-36 loss on a last-second field goal, was a prove-it game that Bay showed himself that he belonged at this level. In that game, he went 23 for 25 for 321 yards and four touchdowns and one interception in a game against the undefeated Bulldogs.
Stepping up in a big game like that was a confidence boost he needed. Sentinel has won three straight since then including over crosstown rivals Missoula Big Sky and Hellgate as well as a 21-14 road victory over Helena.
“The seniors have been great mentors this year,” Bay said. “The younger kids have learned a lot from them and with that we’ve taken what they taught us and we’ve been successful with it.
“We didn’t know our identity (coming into the season). We had 19 new starters at the beginning of the season. We just wanted to figure out who we were and from there we’ve seen what we’re capable of.”
Along with Ortt, Elias DeWaters (Montana), Jace DeWalt (Montana), Brock Field and Beau King (both at Montana Tech) and Blaise Meriweather (Golden West Community College in California) were a few of the Spartan stars last year that were lost to graduation.
Senior receiver and defensive back Preston Jones was one of those few returning starters from last year’s team. Jones, who was a two-way starter a year ago, has served as a mentor for players like Bay who were tasked with filling in with little to no varsity experience.
“I just knew it was going to be a grind and a lot different and we had to have some kids step up,” Jones said. “They had to put in work in the offseason, which they did, and they did a great job at it.
“(With Dayton), I would go over film with him, talk about plays with him, and what I saw last year with my experience and just help him through a tough change from JV to varsity.”
Oliver said another big difference for the Spartans as well has been the ability to win close games, something that tended to hurt Sentinel a year ago. Last week’s matchup at Helena is an example of that.
And with one final game looming before everything is win or go home, the Spartans want to stay locked in as November quickly approaches.
“We’re a true family and we play together every play and we work hard every day,” Jones said. “We just need to keep rolling. We’re having an amazing season right now and we just can’t stop our momentum.”