State champions (copy)

Billing Central quarterback Joe Byorth celebrates the state championships after the Rams defeated the Hamilton High School Broncs 28-21 last fall. Byorth and 14 others graduated from the state championship squad giving the Rams big shoes to fill in their title-defense season.

2018 Class A champion: Billings Central

2019 storylines

Are the Billings Central Rams rebuilding or just reloading? The Rams' run to a 12-0 record and Class A state title was powered by a physical running attack that combined for 4114 yards on the ground last season. Running backs Duncan Kraft (1,511 rushing yards), Jack Studer (1,396 yards) and quarterback Joe Byorth (708) combined for 3,615 of those yards on the ground and they've all graduated, as have 12 other's from the championship team. Seven of those 15 graduating seniors were named all-state, as Central searches for replacements to its three-headed monster, as well as all-state wide receiver Chrishon Dixon and most of its offensive line. The only returner with more than 200 yards of total offense last season, according to the team's Maxpreps.com page, is now-junior Michael Hayden. Who else do the Rams have in the stable? Certainly coach Jim Stanton and his staff will have them ready, though, as the defending champs have made it at least to the Class A semifinals the last three seasons.

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Will this be the year Hamilton breaks through for a state title? Class A's runner-up two times in a row brings back the biggest piece in its state-leading offense — namely Montana's Gatorade Player of the Year, Carson Rostad. The fourth year starting quarterback and University of Montana recruit is on the precipice of some all-time milestones after coming off a junior season where he finished 2,793 yards passing with 53 total touchdowns. Like the Rams, who celebrated a state championship on Hamilton's home field, the Broncs lost a lot, too. The West's top team graduated 10 seniors, including all-state running back Michael Golden, all-state slot receiver Cam Rothie, who is now playing at Carroll College, and all-state lineman Mike Graves. Hamilton, though, has its all-state signal caller and a slew of up-and-coming weapons who are sick and tired of taking second place.

Who else will contend? Like Hamilton, there's another Broncs squad in the Southwest A who finished the 2018 season with a bad taste in its mouth. Frenchtown fell on its home field in the first round of the playoffs to Corvallis, 28-23, and the Broncs return one of the state's most electrifying players in Jace Klucewich. The all-state safety is the top returning leader in yards from scrimmage in the state. There's Laurel, whose 8-3 record was diminished by two losses to Billings Central. The Locomotives return Ethan Renner, who led the team in rushing last year with 815 yards and nine touchdowns. Coach Bryce Carver of Hamilton expects Whitefish and Libby to be improved and there's still C. Falls — the 2017 state champs — looming in the West. Dillon also has pedigree as the last team in Class A to win back-to-back state titles (2013-14). The East field opens up with Belgrade, which was the East's No 4 seed last season, moving to Class AA. That means Miles City, the East's No. 5 seed that fell to Hamilton in the quarterfinals last year, may very well be back to 2010 form (the last time the Cowboys won a state title). Billings Central and Hamilton certainly have earned the right to be considered top dogs on paper headed into the 2019 season, but — as coach Carver put it — it's all up in the air after that. "I think it’s going to be a fun year in Class A," Carver said. "But it's going to be a tough year to get through the West and then through the playoffs because I think everyone’s evened out and there’s a lot of tough teams."

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