MISSOULA — The path to the Class A state title game is totally different for the two teams from western Montana that still remain in Saturday's semifinal round.
Hamilton (9-1 overall) hosts Billings Central (9-1) at 1 p.m. Avoiding a road game means family meals, a familiar schedule and all the other perks home field advantage comes with for one team each week.
"No matter where we'd be on the road, it was going to be a trek," Hamilton's first-year coach Bryce Carver said. "Us being able to eat our own food and sleep in our own beds, that's important for our kids.
"Bus rides are draining — they really are."
Columbia Falls, traveling to Sidney for Saturday's other semifinal game, knows all about that.
It's 542.9 miles from Columbia Falls to Sidney, which is just 10 miles from the Montana/North Dakota border. The directions are easy enough; it's essentially a straight shot East on U.S. Highway 2 for 505 miles, then hang a right in Culbertson. No need to stretch your legs, it's only another 37 miles to Sidney.
"It's hard because they're men of action — it's hard for them to sit there — but they did it last year," Columbia Falls coach Jaxon Schweikert said. "I've been at C. Falls for six years and this is our second time coming over here.
"It's kind of crazy, anything longer I've taken we would have flown."
Like Schweikert said, it's a familiar journey for the Wildcats. On last year's stretch to a state runner-up finish, Columbia Falls bested Sidney 35-20 in the quarterfinals. It was the same two-day, 12-hour slog across the Hi-Line.
One of the key differences this year, though, is the Cats will be playing with Logan Kolodejchuk, a senior defensive end and running back that broke his leg last year late in the regular season against Polson.
"He's a 240-pound sprinter who's a 400-pound bencher... I've been a head coach for over 25 years and he might be the best D-end I've ever had," Schweikert said of the defender.
Stopping the run has been key to Columbia Falls' success this season, coach Schweikert said.
And Kolodejchuk has been the main cog. He leads the team with 7.5 sacks and his 75 total tackles, according to maxpreps.com, is second on the Wildcats.
"Can they run the ball against us? If they can't run the ball against us, it's going to be tough sledding for them," Schweikert said.
Slowing Sidney's run game will be of paramount importance if C. Falls wishes to return to the state championship game. Eagles' quarterback Alec Lovegren is fourth in Class A in rushing with 1,161 yards. Running back Sawyor Thogersen has tacked on another 904 yards running the ball this season and is sixth-best at carrying the rock.
Montana's best at running the ball, at least in terms of total yards, will be stepping off the bus in Hamilton on Saturday.
Billings Central's Ben Voss is the back the Broncs will be tasked with slowing down. It hasn't come easy for the rest of the state, though. Voss has a Class A best 1,547 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns on the ground — eight more than Columbia Falls' Colten McPhee, who's in second.
"(Voss) does a great job of getting behind his O-Linemen... and when he gets a crease, he hits it hard and he's extremely quick and fast and if you don't have multiple guys to the ball, he's going to break long ones," Carver said.
Hamilton will counter with a balanced attack that was on full display in last Saturday's 47-0 semifinal win against Glendive. Bronc senior Bridger Bauder, who is second in Class A with 1,348 rushing yards, had 166 yards and a touchdown toting the ball last week.
Meanwhile, sophomore Carson Rostad was an uber-efficient 22-for-28 passing with 220 yards and four total touchdowns (two passing). He leads the state in total yards through the air by over 1,000 (2,596) and the underclassmen has emerged as a leader even among nine talented seniors.
"He's stepped up to the challenge, and being as smart as he is has really benefited him," Carver said of his young quarterback. "The kids have done a great job of trusting him. They truly trust him at quarterback and let him kind of lead them."
Coach Carver said Rostad will face a tough Billings Central defense, though, that runs a 3-3 stack with a rover; it's something Rostad's rarely seen on the football field. Fortunately the signal caller has gotten a week to visualize how to beat the defense.
And he's been able to do some of that dreaming from the comfort of his own bed.