Braves looking for first state football championship since 1970
By DAVID LESNICK
The Daily Inter Lake
Flathead (9-3) is one victory away from claiming its first state high school football championship since 1970.
The Braves face Billings West (11-1) on Friday night at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium in Billings in the Class AA championship game. It’s also a rematch as those two teams met back on Sept. 7, the third week of the season, at Legends Stadium with West claiming a 42-20 victory. West jumped out to a 21-0 lead in that one and rolled from there.
This is Flathead’s first title appearance since 2000 when the Braves lost to Helena Capital 35-6 at Vigilante Stadium in Helena. Flathead entered that game with a 6-4 record while Capital, the defending state champions, where 11-0. Flathead beat West the week before that one in the semifinals in Billings 36-33 to advance to the title test.
The Braves were coached by Bob Applegate in 2000 and led by running back Lex Hilliard, who had a record-setting career for the Braves and later at the University of Montana. He went on to play professional football with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
The Braves were in the final in 1980, falling to Great Falls C.M. Russell 25-0 at Rawson Field (now Legends Stadium). That game pitted Flathead coach Gene Boyle against the legendary Jack Johnson.
Flathead has won four AA state football championships and tied for another in eight championship games. When FHS claimed the title in 1970, no championship game was held. Instead the Braves were named champions based on their record — all wins and one tie (13-13 versus Butte). There was a playoff back then only if two or more teams tied for first.
That same scenario happened again in 1971 with Great Falls High the winner based on season record.
Tickets for Friday’s game are $6 for students and $7 for adults.
Those not attending can listen to the game on the radio — KGEZ (600 on the AM dial) — with play-by-play provided by sports director Anthony Nachreiner. Video is also available for a fee at www.nfhsnetwork.com.
“There is a huge excitement across the entire building,” Flathead activities director Bryce Wilson said Tuesday.
“Everyone is enthusiastic. Right now, we could fill six buses with students. That many want to go.”
Trouble is, Wilson said they can’t find enough bus drivers right now to fill the request.
The student cost for the bus trip is $10, which includes pizza. All buses will return right after the game.
There will be a pep rally at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday at Flathead High School for the team. The Braves will leave immediately after that and spend the night in Butte.
Flathead has put together a remarkable postseason run on top of an impressive regular season to qualify for the finale in coach Kyle Samson’s fifth season on the sidelines.
The Braves were 7-3 through the first 10 weeks of the schedule, followed by dismantling two-time defending state champion Billings Senior at Legends Stadium 52-35 in the quarterfinal on Nov. 2. Last Friday, the Braves knocked off unbeaten and top-ranked Bozeman 21-17 in the
semifinal in Bozeman.
So now its down to this — the fourth-seed Flathead vs. the second-seed West.
West walloped third-seed Helena High last weekend 34-0 and seventh-seed Butte 45-27 in the quarterfinal.
West and Flathead both lost to Bozeman during the regular season. Flathead by a score of 49-34 and West came up short, 37-33. West has not lost since then.
Flathead and West have played six common foes — Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls C.M. Russell, Helena Capital, Missoula Big Sky and Missoula Sentinel. Flathead and West are both 5-1 against those teams.
Samson, who was the offensive coordinator at MSU-Northern, has done a remarkable job since replacing Russell McCarvel.
“I think he’s surprised (people) getting (Flathead) to the state championship game (this fast), considering where we were at,” Wilson said.
“He helped change the culture (here). The kids have worked so much harder (since his arrival), kids are lifting weights. Now year-in and year-out, we are able to beat any team in the state.”
This marks Flathead’s third playoff appearance under Samson, who quarterbacked Helena Capital to a state championship in 2002. His first year, the team posted a 3-6 mark. Flathead went 6-4 in 2015, losing to Helena Capital 15-0 in the postseason quarterfinal.
There was no playoff appearance in 2016 as Flathead went 3-7.
But the Braves have bounced back strong, going 13-7 in the last two regular seasons. Flathead (6-4 last year in the regular season) lost to Helena Capital in the quarterfinal.
“The thing that impressed me the most was how well he was prepared for the interview,” Wilson said looking back to the first meeting with Samson.
“Just the fact he had an all-in attitude ... I’m going to get it turned around for you and I’m the guy to do it for you.
“When the school split (happened with Glacier), it changed the culture,” Wilson said.
“We didn’t realize then we needed to (do that also). We had to work harder than we used to. He’s the guy who believes you can outwork talent. He’s put in the time, the hours and lives by that.”
And Wilson said Samson’s lead by example approach is copied by his athletes. It’s also spread to other FHS sports and activities. The volleyball team advanced to state and finished fourth this fall. The girls soccer had a break through season with a state trip and senior Ben Perrin won an individual cross country title for FHS.
“A great year so far,” Wilson said.
“We can’t complain at all. I’m very grateful for the effort the kids have put in and for their success.”
And a state football championship would finish off the fall campaign for FHS in memorable fashion.