MISSOULA — Reaching the State B championship for a second straight year is going to take a supreme effort by the Loyola Sacred Heart football team.
The Rams will play on the road again after an inspiring performance at Colstrip last weekend in 4 inches of snow. They're up against a Shelby team they beat 9-0 in early September at Rollin Field.
The differences this time are that the Coyotes (7-3) are hosting and their all-state senior quarterback, Aaron White, may play. He was sidelined by a knee injury when the teams clashed two months ago. He also missed part of last weekend's game at Whitehall with a right (throwing) shoulder injury, so the Rams (7-3) may not know until game time whether he is starting.
Regardless, Loyola coach Todd Hughes expects his troops will have their hands full.
"I think honestly they've got the best offensive and defensive lines we've faced all year long," he said. "They're big. They're athletic."
"I never like playing the same team twice, especially if we pull out a victory. They didn't have a couple of their guys the first time. I expect it to be just a battle. They're a really good football team and they've got a monstrous offensive line."
Although White, the son of Shelby head coach and Corvallis grad Mike White, didn't play against Loyola in September, Hughes knows all about the embattled signal caller. He's seen enough of Aaron White in the summertime to know what the Rams' defense is up against — provided White plays, of course.
"He's got a very fast release, so it's hard to get any pressure on him," Hughes noted. "He's very accurate with his passes.
"I said at the beginning of the season I thought he was the best quarterback or at least one of the best in the state. He knows how to control an offense, read a defense and get the ball where it needs to be."
Loyola will need to do a better job taking care of the football after turning it over five times last week in a 27-18 win. Shelby is coming off a confidence-building comeback win over previously unbeaten Whitehall, 16-13.
Hughes loves the character his team has shown late in the season.
"Of all the teams I've coached, this one here is really a special group," he said. "They're very talented athletically. The big question mark was coming after a great season, controlled by a lot of really good leadership last year, whether or not they could come together as a unit.
"We faced some adversity where they had to come together. I'm extremely proud of them."
Fairfield (10-0) at Eureka (9-0)
In a matchup that seems better suited for the championship — at least on paper — unbeatens Eureka and Fairfield will clash in Lincoln County at 1 p.m. The Eagles won the state title two years ago and the Lions took it last year.
"I anticipate a tight, four-quarter game and it's going to come down to who makes plays in the end," Eureka coach Trevor Utter said. " If you're going to beat Fairfield you have to make the big plays.
"We have very good team speed and that's also their strength. They live on team speed and great discipline."
Eureka had to shovel its field for mid-week practices. But the weather looks good for Saturday afternoon with an expected high of 41 degrees.
One intangible edge for the Lions is that many of this year's players keyed last year's title. Utter has been impressed with the level of urgency his squad has played with in the postseason.
University of Montana recruit Garrett Graves leads the Lions as a dual-threat quarterback and an outside linebacker/safety. He doesn't have real gaudy stats because he's been pulled early in a number of blowout wins.
Sophomore running back Chet McCully averages almost eight yards per carry and is approaching 1,000 yards for the season. Wide receiver/defensive back Brenton Pluid has come up big in the playoffs for the Lions, intercepting two passes in a win over Manhattan, and sophomore middle linebacker Jake Kindel leads the team in tackles.
The winner of the Eureka-Fairfield tilt will host the championship game next weekend.