BILLINGS — As Chris Murdock was being congratulated by friends after Friday’s game against Helena, Nolan Askelson walked by and gave his head coach a big hug.
“I love you, Coach,” Askelson said.
“I love you, too, buddy,” Murdock said. “So proud of you. What a year.”
What a year, indeed.
Billings Senior defeated Helena 21-12 on a cool Friday night at a packed Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium as the Broncs won their second consecutive Class AA state football championship, capping what has been a dominant two-year stretch for the history books.
The win marked 26 in a row for the Broncs, who completed back-to-back 13-0 seasons.
“To me, it’s just a storybook ending. There’s no greater way to put it,” receiver Gabe Sulser said, smiling as he was being congratulated by numerous teammates and friends after the game. “This senior class is one of the hardest working senior classes that Senior has seen in a long time. For us to go out on top is as good as it gets. I’m just so happy to be a part of it and so proud of our guys.”
Sulser got the Broncs on the board just 56 seconds into the game on a 1-yard score. That came after he and Askelson, Senior's quarterback, connected on a 36-yard pass to set the Broncs up early.
“It’s almost kind of stressful. I think I got about 10 hours of sleep over the last three days,” Sulser said. “I was hoping this was going to happen. Only one team was able to end on a win and I’m happy that’s the way our time ended here at Senior.”
Not long after, Blake Allred found paydirt from six yards out to give Senior a 14-0 first-quarter lead. Allred had a pick-6 in last year’s state championship win over Kalispell Glacier.
This year, he was rewarded on offense.
“(Assistant coach Brandon) Anton was looking at me and said, ‘You better get in there, this is your chance,’” Allred said. “So I got in there and celebrated with the guys.”
Helena punched back quickly, though, thanks to a stingy defense and special teams that forced three Senior turnovers and blocked a punt in the first half.
After Zach Spiroff picked off an Askelson pass, Helena quarterback Kaleb Winterburn found Zach Huth for a 13-yard score to trim Senior’s lead. Winterburn then hit Kyle Tabbert for a 12-yard touchdown to give Helena momentum and send the game into halftime with Senior leading 14-12. The Broncs prevented two Helena 2-point conversions while also stopping Helena on fourth down inside the Senior 10 in the second quarter to hang onto the slim lead.
“We felt that adversity about two weeks ago against Bozeman,” Allred said of Senior's comeback quarterfinal win over the Hawks. “We knew the only way we can lose this is if we beat ourselves. We overcame that in the second half and came out on top.”
Senior made it 21-12 after Askelson scored with 5:14 left in the third quarter.
“It’s surreal, man,” Askelson said. “It’s bittersweet being my last game in the orange and black. I wouldn’t trade playing with these guys for the world. To go out on top, there’s no better way. It’s so awesome and I’m so happy for all of these guys that work their butts off all offseason. Look at these dudes, they don’t give up, they have grit, heart, they love each other and that’s what it takes and it’s just awesome to show everyone if you have heart and love you can do it.”
Helena wouldn’t go away, and drove down to Senior’s 5-yard line with around six minutes left. The Broncs held the Bengals out, and would eventually stop one more Helena drive before assuming victory formation to seal the game.
Defensively, Sulser and Askelson each had an interception, while Garrison Poetzl added two sacks.
“After the first two series, our defense played very well; once we got our feet settled, we played well defensively,” Helena coach Tony Arntson said. “Offensively, we just couldn’t make a play.”
Two for two.
Whatever way you spin, it describes two years of Senior football dominance.
“You look in the eyes of these guys you’ve been coaching for four years and you wouldn’t want anything different,” said Murdock. “You look into Gabe Sulser’s eyes, Nolan’s eyes, and guys like Rico Martinez, and you know how much it means to them. So you’re so dang happy for those kids to get to experience this.”