HAMILTON — Camron Rothie thought he scored the go-ahead touchdown for his Hamilton Broncs with a little over six minutes remaining in Saturday's Class A state semifinal.
He was ruled out of bounds about an inch short of the end zone. No matter, it was hard to imagine the Broncs not punching it in for a score from that close.
However, they fumbled, providing the ever-present adversity football coaches always preach about overcoming.
And the Broncs handled it. They earned a trip to the Class A title game against Columbia Falls next week in the process, topping the Billings Central Rams, 35-28.
Hamilton forced a Billings Central punt after the Rams had taken over on their own 1-yard line, and Rothie scored on Hamilton's next series to put the Broncs up 35-28. This time, with 3:04 remaining in the game, there was no doubt Rothie had reached the end zone.
"Once we got that three-and-out, we knew we were just going to drive again and score — we thought we did the first time — but (this time) it happened, and it ended perfect," Rothie said.
The play was reminiscent of a swing pass the junior wide receiver took 60-yards to pay dirt in the second quarter that tied the game, 14-14.
One week after hauling in just two catches for eight yards in a 47-0 quarterfinal win against Glendive, Rothie was everywhere on the field. He added an interception on the second play of the fourth quarter that halted a Central drive in the red zone.
"He's been a little bit frustrated because he didn't get the ball as much as he'd like, but I just told him, 'Just wait, it's going to come,'" Hamilton quarterback Carson Rostad said. "It came this game, and he did good with it."
The Rams were given another scoring chance after Hamilton's go-ahead touchdown, too. Trailing 35-28, Billings Central got the ball back at midfield with less than three minutes remaining in the semifinal.
Central quarterback Joe Byorth dialed up his go-to receiver, Chrishon Dixon. It was a call that had already worked to the tune of two touchdowns and a handful of big plays, including a 40-yard fade route that Dixon went up and got over tight coverage for the Rams' first touchdown to tie the game, 7-7, early on.
Byorth and Dixon made it 14-7 on a similar fade route in the second quarter, too. It's understandable why the junior-class duo tried to connect twice more late in the game.
"I trust him more than anyone. I trust all these guys a lot, it's saying a lot to have me trust (Dixon) to the max," Byorth said. "I know if I'm in any trouble, I can just put it up and he's going to go get it.
"He showed that today."
On second down, with 2:30 left on the clock and in Central's season, Byorth bombed one to Dixon. He had a step on his defender, but the ball uncharacteristically fell to the ground.
On third down, Byorth tried again, but Hamilton senior Tyler Chouinard was there to break up the pass. With Dixon in double coverage on fourth down, the Rams tried elsewhere, but again Central's pass fell incomplete. Hamilton forced a turnover on downs and needed one first down to ice the game.
The Broncs got it from Rostad, their sophomore quarterback.
On third-and-3, Rostad called his own number on a draw play near midfield. Channeling senior running back Bridger Bauder — who finished with two rushing touchdowns and 129 yards, including the 7 before Rostad's conversion — the sophomore QB simply fell forward for the first.
"It was the most excited I've been all season," said Rostad of how he felt before snapping the ball. "I just put two hands on (the ball) and ran as hard as I could."
It sent Hamilton back to the state title game for the first time since 2000. The Broncs last won it back to back in 1997-98; the former champions were honored at Haynes Field in the shadow of the snowy Bitterroot Mountains at halftime.
Now it's the 2017 iteration of the Broncs who have a chance to immortalize their team.
For Hamilton (10-1) to add its name alongside its elder statesmen, the kids from Ravalli County will have to overcome the only team that beat them this season: Columbia Falls. The Wildcats (8-1) bested the Broncs 23-20 way back on Sept. 1.
Hamilton's been dreaming of revenge ever since.
"We've been wanting a rematch the second we lost that one, and I think we're ready to go," Rostad said.
The Broncs will get their shot in the state title game next week.
Columbia Falls 17, Sidney 0
The Wildcats made their way again to the state title game, making it now in back-to-back seasons.
Now they'll try to bring home that elusive first-place trophy.
The defending state runners-up utilized a tough run-stopping defense to hold Sidney (9-2) scoreless, 17-0, in Saturday's other state semifinal in the far reaches of Eastern Montana. C. Falls' coach Jaxon Schweikert said before the game Sidney's rushing offense might not have trouble moving the ball against a Cats' defense that prides itself in clogging lanes.
"The good thing for us is we have a tremendous run defense. Our D-Line, our linebackers are just outstanding, and that's Sidney's strength offensively (running the ball)," Schweikert said. "That's going to be the tell: Can they run the ball against us?"
The Eagles couldn't.
Columbia Falls' offense countered with a pair of touchdowns and an Auguste Emond field goal to lift the team back to the state championship, where the Wildcats will try for their first Class A football title in program history. Colton McPhee's 32-yard run in the first quarter and Drew Morgan's 32-yard touchdown reception from Austin Green accounted for all of the game's scoring.