MISSOULA — At long last, high school football is here.
And with it, plenty of change.
After all three Missoula Class AA schools missed the postseason last year, they've already punched a ticket to the 2019 postseason. With the addition of Belgrade High School, the AA now has 15 teams and is split into two conferences. The East has seven teams while the West will feature eight.
That is, of course, until Bozeman's second high school opens in 2020 which will bump it up to 16 schools and should even everything out.
But for now, there are 15, and every Class AA school will make the playoffs with the new format. The top seed in the West will earn a bye while everyone else will cross-bracket in the opening round and so on.
Missoula Big Sky will be the first of the three Garden City Class AA teams to play in town. The Eagles will host defending champion Billings West on Friday at 7 p.m. at Missoula County Stadium.
It was a weird season in 2018 for Big Sky after making the playoffs three of the previous four seasons, including a semifinal campaign in 2014 and an 8-2 regular season record in 2017. The Eagles are coming off of a 2-8 campaign but return a good core of skill position players. Big Sky coach Matt Johnson, who is in his 10th season coaching the Eagles, said the team graduated a lot of offensive and defensive linemen from last season.
"We're excited. I think we have two of the best receivers in the state in (senior) Ben Maehl and (senior) Everett Fred and they're showing a lot of leadership," Johnson said. "We have a couple of guys with a lot of game experience. We do have some good experience coming back."
Senior Jett Rebish and junior Colter Janacaro are two more players who Johnson is excited about. Both will provide depth at running back and on the defensive side of the ball, as will Fred and Maehl. Senior center Brandon Donahoo was another guy Johnson is excited about as is senior Doug Swanson and junior Hunter Meinzen. Senior Draven Lincoln will get the start under center for the Eagles.
According to Big Sky's Maxpreps page, Janacaro was the team's leading rusher a season ago with 882 yards on 193 carries and 11 touchdowns while also catching 24 passes. Rebish added four more scores on the ground. Maehl was the team's leading receiver with 24 catches for 405 yards and six touchdowns and was tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. Swanson returns as the team's leading tackler.
Big Sky has 16 seniors listed on its roster of 43 players.
"That becomes a challenge. We're asking a core group of guys to do a lot," Johnson said. "And they're doing it and we work through our program to get there. We're used to it."
Missoula Sentinel will hit the road to take on Great Falls High to open the season on Friday. The Spartans were hit with massive turnover from last year's squad, which went 5-5 and just missed out on the postseason after a semifinal appearance in 2017. Among those lost include two-year starting quarterback Rylan Ortt (Montana State), two-year starting running back Elias DeWaters (Montana) and fellow Grizzly and the team's leading receiver from last year Jace DeWalt. Current Montana Tech players Brock Field and Beau King as well as Blaise Meriweather (Golden West Community College in California) were also lost to graduation.
Sentinel head coach Dane Oliver said they graduated about 20 seniors from last year's team so there are plenty of shoes to fill.
But the Spartans return a lot of solid football players as well. Two-way returning starter Preston Jones (WR/DB), a senior, figures to be a big impact player. Junior Dayton Bay and sophomore Zac Crews have been entrenched in the QB battle. Oliver said he hasn't named a starter yet but both figure to see a lot of playing time regardless of the decision. Junior Geno Leonard (OL/LB) is another two-way returning starter. Senior Caden Paulson (WR/DB), juniors Soren Syvrud (RB/LB) and Donovan South (RB/DB) and sophomore Charlie Kirgan (RB/DL) were other players Oliver pointed out.
You have free articles remaining.
Along with those returners, Sentinel added Flint Creek standout Jaxon Lee as a transfer last winter for his senior year. Lee is one of the state's top Class of 2020 recruits and made his verbal commitment to Montana over the summer. Oliver said Lee will be a two-way starter and will line up "all over the field." Plus, junior Dylan Rollins returns as Sentinel's starting left tackle. Rollins, the younger brother of current MSU sophomore Byron Rollins, was offered a scholarship by the Bobcats over the summer to join their 2021 class. Senior Brandon Spencer also returns after playing as the team's starting center last season. Both Rollins and Spencer were primarily offense last year but will be two-way starters this season.
"It's going to come down to who plays just good, solid football," Oliver said. "We're just inexperienced and that's where we're at but that's not a bad thing. The players are there, they've been working hard, it's just a matter of performing on a Friday night. I'm excited for them."
Hellgate is also coming off of a 2-8 campaign. The Knights' win over Great Falls CMR snapped a 57-game losing streak which dated back to Oct. 5, 2012. Hellgate opens at home against Billings Skyview on Friday, Sept. 6.
Hellgate sports 23 seniors this season in year three back since the 2016 forfeited season. Head coach Mick Morris said the Knights bring back nine starters on offense and eight on defense.
Hellgate returns senior Rollie Worster, who has started as the team's quarterback the past two seasons and on defense as well. Worster passed for 1,789 yards in 2018 and nine touchdowns while also rushing for 1,158 yards and eight more scores. He also returns as the team's leading tackler with 143, including 93 solo.
The Knights also return their leading receiver in senior Brandon Coladonato. Coladonato caught 48 passes for 815 yards and four scores last year and also starts as a defensive back where he racked up 49 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Senior Dakota Friesen is another player who is entering his third season as a two-way starter. Senior Brennan Dumont is another returning two-way starter at receiver and linebacker. Morris also pointed to sophomores Ian Finch (WR/DB) and Jake Sweatland (RB/LB) as a pair of up-and-comers for the Knights.
"We're lucky enough that we've had basically the same coaching staff we've had for the last three years," Morris said. "We made a plan about what the years were going to look like and we knew that first year was going to be tough. We knew last year we'd have a few opportunities.
"With the number of kids we have and the depth we have with our senior class, this year is definitely something we're looking forward to."
Loyola Sacred Heart will open the season in Bobcat Stadium against Huntley Project for the third straight season. Their clash begins at 7 p.m. on Friday.
The Rams are coming off an 11-2 season and runner-up finish in Class B having lost to Fairfield in the championship game. This year, they sport 14 seniors including the Danielson triplets who will play a big role on both sides of the ball. Blake Danielson and fellow senior Nick Mitzel will rotate at quarterback.
"One of the things we take pride in a lot is grooming our freshmen from all the way until they are seniors," Loyola coach Todd Hughes said. "So by the time they're seniors its not ever one individual, it's usually a whole group of our seniors who demand excellence. Their expectations are set high. And these guys here are no different."
Valley Christian begins its 2019 campaign under new head coach Jim Cissell. Cissell takes over for Shane Sander who guided the program the past four seasons.
Last year the Eagles went 4-5 and just missed out on the 6-Man playoffs, the first time in the program's five-year history. This year, the team has 11 players but only 10 of whom are currently healthy. The team has five seniors.
Valley Christian begins the season against Reed Point-Rapelje on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“I think it’s going well,” Cissell said earlier this month about the first few practices. “It’s one of those things where you wait for the team to create its own identity. I’m not going to try and mold them into what I want them to be. I want the team to mold themselves into what they can be.”