By KATIE BROWN
The Daily Inter Lake
The Flathead Braves aren’t just happy to be here. They’re here to win.
Flathead (9-3) will compete for its first Class AA state football title in 48 years on Friday against the Billings West Golden Bears (11-1) at Daylis Stadium in Billings.
Flathead coach Kyle Samson said winning a state title was the plan all along, so he’s not surprised his team has made it this far.
“You never can predict the future but we really, honestly expected to be here and I think that’s a big reason why we’re here,” Samson said. “When we got to the playoffs they knew that we weren’t just satisfied with being in the playoffs. The same with last week, we went down and played Bozeman, the No. 1 team. They knew that we were coming down there to get a win. I think that mindset and that vision that we set way back in March — our goal was to win a state championship and we’re one game away from doing that.”
The brand of confidence Flathead has comes from preparation, according to Samson. Every week he and his assistants work hard to make sure every angle is covered.
“They gained confidence throughout the season with the success that we’ve had,” Samson said. “At the same time we know that every game we’ve got to respect our opponents and every game’s gonna be tough. You have confidence when you have a group of kids that believe in what we’re doing and they believe in each other.”
Flathead upset undefeated Bozeman 21-17 in the semifinals last week, earning it a spot in the championship game, the school’s first since 2000, where it fell 35-6 to Helena Capital.
When Samson took over the program five years ago, he set out to create what he calls a “championship culture” and now sees the fruits of his labor in this year’s squad.
“The biggest thing to me is the love that we have for each other and the hard work,” Samson said. “Our kids are not afraid to work. We ask a lot out of them in the offseason and the summers and they enjoy it. That’s the biggest thing is that they love playing the game of football.”
Samson said none of this would be possible without his assistant coaches.
“To me they’re the best group of assistant coaches in the state,” he said.
Turnovers, Samson said, will be the biggest key to beating Billings West.
“Making sure that we take care of the football,” Samson said. “To me, whoever wins the turnover battle will probably win the game. So we’ve got to take care of the ball and then defensively we’ve got to get a couple.”
Turnovers played a major role in the Braves’ defeat of Bozeman, including two interceptions in the third quarter, one by Chance Sheldon-Allen and the other by Brian Wells.
West’s size and speed are its biggest threats, as well as its efficient attack on all sides of the ball — offense, defense and special teams. A triple threat.
“They’re very big up front and they’ve got a lot of athletes,” Samson said. “They can run, they’ve got some speed. That’s obviously why they’re in the championship game, it’s because they do a lot of things very well. We know that we’re in for a heck of a battle and it’s going to be a great challenge but we’ll be ready to go.”
Flathead last played West in Week 3, losing 42-20 at Legends Stadium. Samson cautions that while there are things than can be gleaned from that game, both teams have played a lot of football since that last meeting.
“There’s things we can learn but at the same time we feel like we’ve grown a lot as a football team since Week 3 and then they have too,” Samson said. “I think it’s going to be a different type of game. We feel like we’re playing our best football right now and as are they. It should be a heck of a game.”