LIBBY — To be 6-0 is mighty fine.
Some other numbers to ponder:
4-5, 2-7, 5-5, 5-5, 3-6, 1-8, 2-7, 0-8, 1-8, 2-7…
Over the 10 years that followed an undefeated Libby Loggers’ loss in the 2007 Montana Class A football playoffs to eventual champion Billings Central, the Loggers went from being a power in Class A to averaging 2.5 wins per season and last appearing in the playoffs eight years ago.
The drought has been long and hard for the Logger faithful and even included an unpopular and perhaps ill-advised drop to Class B, where the Loggers amassed a 1-16 record over two years despite being the largest school in the classification. Like many other football programs across the country, struggles with football participation added to the Loggers’ woes, including a couple of years when a varsity squad comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores represented the school on the field with predictable results.
While some schools in similar dire straits might have forfeited their seasons (Missoula Hellgate and Livingston being examples), Libby decided to forge ahead and took some serious lumps. Not surprisingly, grumblings about possibly dropping the program altogether started to be heard around Libby America.
Last year looked to be more of the same, but leading up to the end of the 2018 campaign, something began to stir as the Loggers solidified as a team and ended the season with four straight wins, finishing 5-4 and narrowly missing the playoffs. In 2019, the Loggers hit the ground running, with a 31-0 pummeling of division rival Whitefish followed by lopsided wins over Browning (35-12), Ronan (55-6), Columbia Falls (54-14), and Polson (45-6) to decisively run the table on Northwest A, followed by a 29-21 victory over Butte Central that might not have been close if not for a couple of defensive breakdowns and some sluggish execution that let the Maroons back into the game in the second half.
So far, the Loggers are outscoring their opponents by a 41.5-9.8 margin (only Hamilton’s 44.3 to 15.2 margin appears to be comparable in Class A). If you go back to 2018, the Loggers are riding a 10-game winning streak (tops in class A) as they begin their final three-game run against top-five ranked Class A powers Dillon (4-1), Hamilton (5-1), and Frenchtown (4-1).
The chainsaws have been singing in Logger Town like they haven’t in years and the whole town is energized. Heck, there were so many people in attendance for Homecoming against Butte Central this past Friday that I had to park in the middle of a field a 10-minute walk away from the stadium.
Curiously, the state as a whole has hardly seemed to notice. In spite of Libby’s win streak, undefeated season thus far (Miles City is the only other undefeated team in Class A at 5-0, one fewer win than the Loggers), and dominating performances on the field, as of week five the Loggers were unranked. The latest Class A 406mtsports.com ranking finally showed a little love for the Loggers, who are fifth.
Maybe that’s for the best.
It’s doubtful that the coaching staffs at Dillon, Hamilton, or Frenchtown are looking past the Loggers as they work toward probable playoff runs, but if the Loggers’ ultimate role is to be that of spoilers, they will relish it.
This season’s Loggers are playing with an intensity rarely seen over the past decade. The team displays great athleticism, has some real size for a change, and its leaders are playing with a ferocity that can only come from a group that feels like it has something to prove and finally has the tools to prove it.
Seventeen-year coach Neil Fuller recently fielded a few questions about this year’s Libby Loggers:
Question: In your last game against Butte Central, if not for a couple of defensive breakdowns and a bit of penalty trouble that might have taken away some scoring opportunities, the final score could have easily been 43-14 instead of 29-21.
Answer: “I thought we could have held them to seven. One of the problems was that we were up 29-7 going into the fourth and three times were down in scoring position and just didn’t execute. We did have some penalties there, but we were also miss-firing on some pass plays. For us to win these next three games we’re going to have to play four good quarters. “
Q: Going into these last three games against teams that many people believe are among the best in Class A, what are you doing to clean up things and prepare for the run up to the playoffs?
A: “You go back to the drawing board and correct things in practice. We watch a lot of film. We met up at 6:30 this morning to watch the Butte Central game to point out that these are the things we need to work on and they’re easily fixable. The two pass plays that we got burned on, normally those kids play great defense but on one our corner stumbled, and our safety was late getting back. They had played really solid the whole game but that was their one play that they struggled on. The other corner on the other long pass play, he’d had a great night defensively, but he thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta come up to stop the run,’ in a situation where that’s not his job and we had great help underneath the quarterback, so he let the guy get behind him. But, having said that, I told our coaches if we had scored a couple times in the third, they don’t score either of those touchdowns. We’ve got momentum, our defense comes out and stops them first drive of the second half, we get the ball in great field position, but we don’t cash in. If you keep doing that like we did in the third quarter, you lose that momentum…and you can’t do that against a good football team.”
You have free articles remaining.
Q: Does this Logger football team feel like it has something to prove to the rest of the state?
A: “Oh, definitely. With our seniors when they came in as freshmen our only win was with Troy during our last year in Class B. Their sophomore year we were better, but we still weren’t very good and we only won two games. Then as juniors we finished 5-4 and were positioned to be in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they changed the format and so Whitefish went ahead of us even though we beat them. The team is excited. I was talking to one of the seniors this weekend and he said that it’s so cool seeing where we came from to where we are now. They’re enjoying the ride. They know we’ve got a tough stretch to go, but they’re excited.”
Q: Do you feel like the experience of the past few years – especially the two-year drop to B and the low participation numbers – helped to shape the drive and attitude of this team?
A: “What we have this year is a strong group of seniors that have been at the bottom and they’ve been part of the progress to get back the top. I talk to them often about how four years ago we didn’t win a game. You can imagine how they felt as eighth graders going into high school when we’d been really struggling. The cool thing is to see their metamorphosis.”
Q: Reportedly some of the struggles the Logger program has had to overcome that the players on this team have likely played more downs of football at the varsity level than any other team in Class A. How is all that experience affecting what we’re seeing on the field?
A: “Well, three of our linemen started as freshmen, so they’ve played a lot of football and they’ve been to hell and back, so to speak. In 2010 we had a playoff team and we had a pretty good running game. And in 2011 we were more of a passing team. We were able to run some, but it’s been eight years since we’ve been able to really put it together. Last year we were able to run the ball a little bit, but this year that’s been our bread and butter, being able to run the football.”
Q: You’ve praised our offensive line and there are a number of standout players in this group…
A: “We have a core group of kids, and it’s not just the seniors but includes underclassmen as well, that have put more time in the weight room than we’ve had kids do in years and you can really see that pay off out on the field. This season has been fun because the success this year is a product of the time the team has put it. We could see it coming at camp the last two summers. It just took a while to get going last year. Our best game of the (2018) pre-season was against Frenchtown. That was a winnable game for us, but we had a couple of goofy turnovers that flipped the game and they beat us 30 to 19. We were up seven-zip and driving for another score. We fumble the snap and they turn around and score on the very next play and it just flipped it. But Frenchtown was one of the better teams in Southwest A last year and it was our best pre-season game. Then we get beat by Butte Central and Corvallis, Whitefish beats them, yet we handle Whitefish the last game of the season. It’s just a case of us getting better and better while we were trying to find ourselves.”
Q: It’s hard not to be impressed by Jeff Offenbecher. How would you describe him in one word?
A: “He’s just a fearless competitor. He’s a warrior out there. He just plays lights out every time. That’s what I love about him. Tenacity. “
Q: Looking at the Logger roster, a lot of juniors and sophomores are significant contributors to your success thus far. Does this signal a return for the program and continued success down the road in future seasons?
A: “I’ve been here since 2003, and down into our younger grades, this is our best run of athletes we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’ve had some good kids over the years, but as far as each grade level goes, it’s the most talent that I’ve seen, so we’re excited.”
Q: Many people might not realize that you’ve been coach for the Loggers for the better part of two decades now…
A: “Let’s see…this is my seventeenth year? Or is it my eighteenth? No, seventeenth.”
Q: …and you’ve had some really good teams over that period. How does this team compare?
A: “We’re running the ball as well as we’ve ever run it. At times we throw the ball well, but we need to do a better job in our passing game, being more consistent, because if we can be more balanced, we’ve got a chance. I tell these kids that they’ve got a chance to go a long way, but these next few weeks are going to tell us a lot. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot, which we’re excited about, but at the same time we don’t want to stumble going into the playoffs. We want to get better each weekend. These next three games will tell us a lot about where we’re at.”
Q: Do you have a message for the folks out there who might be taking this Logger team lightly, especially coming up against the likes of Dillon, Hamilton, and Frenchtown?
A: “I don’t think the teams that are going to play us…Dillon and Hamilton and Frenchtown…are going to overlook us. They all have very good coaching staffs and they are smart enough to know that you can’t overlook anybody. I don’t think they’ll overlook us at all.
I think they’re going to be preparing like heck.”