Sidney's Jace Johnson

Sidney's Jace Johnson celebrates after scoring a touchdown in a 28-19 win over Billings Central on Friday, Sept. 1. The Eagles will meet up with Laurel this Friday in a battle of 6-0 teams.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

BILLINGS – Proving people wrong is a skill the Eureka Lions are quickly becoming masters at accomplishing.

The defending Class B state champions have cruised through their regular season schedule in defense of that title, improving to 5-0 after recently defeating Missoula Loyola 51-28 in a rematch of the championship game from a year ago.

Eureka was on few radars last season when it defeated the Rams on a Hail Mary pass from Garrett Graves to Austyn Sherwood to win the school’s first state title. Nobody saw Eureka coming because it was an underdog heading into the game, it had not won a championship before with a recent track record of some success but nothing outstanding, not even making the playoffs in 2015. Eureka being a small town tucked away in northwest Montana about 10 miles south of the Canadian border also played to that effect.

Even after the team’s win over favored Loyola, doubts still set in coming into the season about whether Eureka was a one-and-done team.

Time to cast those doubts aside.

“We did and we knew that we lost 12 amazing seniors but we also knew that there was also a wealth of kids that were juniors and sophomores that were waiting for their turn,” Eureka coach Trevor Utter said over the phone on Wednesday about the team expecting to be good again this year. “We have 10 more seniors right now who have been waiting their turn and they’re stepping up and getting it done. So we are not surprised to be good again.”

Utter echoed that other teams may have expected the Lions to be down, something he and his team are happy to prove otherwise.

“After you win a state championship, nobody wants to be the class that lets everybody else down,” Utter said. “So these kids have worked extremely hard to fill the shoes. I wouldn’t say they’ve quite filled those shoes yet because there’s a lot of football left.”

Utter, who is in his sixth year as head coach, said the team does have some improvements to still be made, and going into the game against Loyola they had some questions about their own team about whether they are where they want to be at this point of the season. Defeating the Rams only solidified their belief in their team while also proving to the rest of the state that last year was no fluke.

Graves is back, having committed to Montana earlier this summer to play football. Utter said his skill positions players on the offensive side are a strength of the team, adding that senior Brenton Pluid and sophomore Chet McCully have both stood out.

The season has not been without its hiccups. The Lions big clash with Bigfork (4-0) on Sept. 15 was cancelled due to the cyber threats that affected the Flathead Valley.

“It was hard on the kids because we went through this rollercoaster of thinking the whole time, ‘Maybe it will be played the next day or the next day,’” Utter said. “You’re constantly waiting for the yes we’re good to go. But it never came. Our kids were extremely disappointed that there wasn’t a scenario that worked, so it was a big-time downer.

“What we were able to get across to the kids is that what that does is it makes every other conference game that we have coming up after them so important.”

Utter said wins and point-spreads are what become key going forward, because of that game being taken away. For instance, Bigfork defeated Florence by six points. Eureka’s next game will be at Florence (3-2) on Friday, which has only lost one conference game and is a tough team. So Eureka needs to win by more than six points to stay in first.

“It makes the wins and the amount you win by very important,” Utter said.

Eureka, the No. 1 team in the 406mtsports.com rankings, has come a long way since Utter’s first season when they went 3-5. And if this season keeps going the way that it is, do not expect them to go anywhere but up anytime soon.

And having experienced success and failure, Utter and his team are not taking it for granted.

“It’s had its ups and downs that’s for sure. It’s a lot more fun to be on the up than it is the down,” Utter said with a laugh. “You sleep a lot better at night when you’re winning.”

Last undefeated standing

A classic Eastern A matchup.

That’s how Sidney football coach Roger Merritt describes this weekend’s game with Laurel, as both schools are meeting as the last two undefeated teams in the conference.

Both teams sit at 6-0, and will meet this Friday in Sidney.

Merritt said his team will prepare like they do for any other team.

“Laurel’s coming in with some good athletes,” Merritt said. “They’re team speed is probably one of the biggest things that we’re looking at and preparing for.”

Both teams are similar this season in that they graduated a ton of seniors a year ago. Laurel, the No. 4 team, graduated 24 seniors and only has three this year. The Locomotives are coming off of 20-0 shutout over Glendive while Sidney, the No. 2 team, recently defeated Havre 54-14.

“We knew we had the kids to fill the holes that were left by the seniors that graduated last year,” Merritt said. “For us to kind of mature throughout the season and gradually get better, and they’re playing really well as a team which is probably our best asset.”

Running backs Alec Lovegren and Sawyor Thorgersen make up the dual backfield for the Eagles, both with over 600 rushing yards this season and 15 touchdowns between the two of them. Quarterback Jace Johnson has helped engineer a passing game that has improved over the season.

Sidney’s defense has been stout, with only two teams scoring double-digits on them. The Eagles defeated Belgrade in the first week and earned a big win over Billings Central in Week 2, but since then have defeated Hardin (34-7), Glendive (21-2), Lewistown (38-0), and Havre.

But the challenge with Laurel should be a fun one.

“It creates a great matchup that has been there for several years and it’s going to be a battle,” Merritt said. “It’s going to be exciting and fun and it’s kind of nice to have them at home for this. The kids, as well as the coaching staff are looking forward to the matchup.”

Belt, Great Falls Central battle for top spot

In another battle to stay perfect, the Belt Huskies and the Great Falls Central Mustangs will meet up on Friday in a battle to see who will stay atop the 8-Man North standings.

Belt, the No. 2 team in 8-Man, just defeated Hays-Lodgepole 68-0 while Great Falls Central, the No. 5 team, beat Chester-Joplin-Inverness 53-6. The Huskies have outscored opponents 341-84 while the Mustangs have done so 298-42.

In short, both teams are really good.

“We knew we were going to have to beat Choteau or Central to put ourselves in a good spot,” Belt coach Jeff Graham said. “We knew we’d have a difficult game with Centerville or Fort Benton if we didn’t.

“We’ve been in the playoffs five years in a row, and just kind of the tradition we’ve got going here. That’s the good thing we’ve got going for us is that culture.”

Injuries, especially on the offensive line, have hit Belt recently, dropping their numbers down to 13. Of that group, six are seniors, including two-sport star Keagan Stroop.

Heading into the big game against the Mustangs, Graham stressed the importance of his players stepping up in big games.

“That’s the thing I’ve liked about our kids the past few years is they’ve stepped up in games like this one,” Graham said. “Keagan has followed suit with the other seniors that have done that and make the plays when we need them.”

Belt was a semifinal team a year ago, losing to Charlo.

“They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder which you like. We graduated four all-state kids and there was a lot of people that counted these guys out,” Graham said. “The next group of seniors have really stepped up so I’m proud of them for that.”

With the lone spot atop the 8-Man North standings awaiting, Belt and Great Falls Central will kick off at 7 p.m. on Friday.

Email Kyle Hansen at kyle.hansen@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsHansen

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