BILLINGS — The Flathead Braves fell short — eight yards short, to be exact — in their quest for the Class AA state football title, losing 20-14 to Billings West on Friday night at Daylis Stadium.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying. A tearful Kyle Samson, Flathead’s head coach, made sure that was clear.
“We were just right there,” Samson said. “They gave it everything they had and just didn’t quite get it done.”
Right there they were. Still trailing 20-14 with 5:52 left in the fourth quarter, Brian Wells intercepted West quarterback Josh Erbacher and the Braves drove the ball to the 8-yard line. In a fourth-down situation, quarterback Jaden MacNeil’s pass fell incomplete. The defense still had to take the field, but the Braves had done all they could to try to win the state title.
At the whistle, some players sat in the snow, holding their head in their hands. Their disappointment was palpable.
Samson was still choked up an hour after the end of the game. Players made their way in and out of the visitors locker room, some stopping to embrace a teammate or shake the hand of a coach, some still in shock from the result.
“I’m sad that it’s all over,” Samson said. “ A special group of guys. I’m so proud of them, so proud of what they’ve done. I’m so proud of my coaches. It’s just the finality of it I guess is the hardest thing. But I just told them I love them, I’m so proud of them and they have nothing to hang their head about. They fought every inch, for everything they did tonight. I just love this team.”
Flathead received the opening kickoff but West recovered the fumble, putting it in scoring position right away. West’s Jesse Owens ran nine yards to put the Braves down 7-0 less than a minute into the game.
Erbacher connected with Lucas Gibb four minutes later and suddenly Flathead found itself down two touchdowns in the first quarter.
MacNeil got the Braves on the board in the second quarter with a 7-yard run. The Braves were back in business.
West answered the bell quickly. Erbacher hit Owens with a 25-yard pass. Flathead trailed 20-7 after the first half.
The first half, for Flathead, was marked by three efficient drives that put it in prime scoring position, but West was ready each time. Before the half, Flathead kicker Eric Gardner’s 36-yard field goal attempt went wide.
The snow began falling in earnest as the second half began, and Flathead went back to work.
On fourth-and goal from the 7-yard line, Anthony Jones caught a touchdown pass from MacNeil to end a 94-yard drive, cutting West’s lead to six with 10:25 to play.
“Our kids never quit,” Samson said. “They never gave in. They fought through adversity. I’m so proud — going down so early like that with the first kickoff and fighting back and never quitting. That’s just the epitome of our team and hats off to Billings. They’ve got a great coach and a great program. We congratulate them. So proud of our kids’ effort and toughness.”
Counts ran for 182 yards, MacNeil threw for 89 and ran for 16 yards. Jones had four catches and 77 yards.
Bus loads of family, friends and fans made the more than 400-mile trek from the Valley to Billings to cheer on the Braves. Their cheers were heard and their efforts appreciated.
“The support that we have is incredible and amazing,” Samson said. “To have that many people on the road, seven hours away is amazing. To all our fans and all our families and everyone that made the trip — our band, our cheerleaders — just want to thank them for coming down here and giving us the love and support.”
Flathead 0 7 0 7 — 14
Billings West 14 6 0 0 — 20
BW – Jesse Owens 9 run (Zack Figg kick good)
BW – Lucas Gibb 29 pass from Josh Erbacher (Figg kick good)
F – Jaden MacNeil 7 run (Eric Gardner kick good)
BW – Owens 25 pass from Erbacher (Figg kick failed)
F – Anthony Jones 7 pass from MacNeil (Gardner kick good)
First downs 16 14
Rushes-yards 52-196 29-135
Passing yards 89 129
Passing (att-comp-int) 14-5-1 14-7-1
Penalties-yds 3-27 4-27
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-1
Punts-avg 1-42 2-40
Kickoff returns-yds 3-25 2-34
Int (no.-yds) 1-15 0-0
RUSHING – Flathead, Blake Counts 34-182, Jaden MacNeil 16-13, Chance Sheldon-Allen 1-2, Logan Siblerud 1- -1. Billings West, DeMarcus Carr 15-48, Cade Nelson 5-26, Josh Erbacher 6-32, Jesse Owens 1-9.
PASSING – Flathead, Jaden MacNeil 5-14-1-1-89. Billings West, Josh Erbacher 7-14-1-1-129.
RECEIVING – Flathead, Anthony Jones 4-77, Logan Siblerud 1-12. Billings West –Jesse Owens 3-35, Chapin Marsh 2-36, Alex Bruns 1-29, Lucas Gibb 1-29