Guide to the Class AA football season
2018 champion: Billings West
New playoffs: Belgrade’s participation in Class AA starting this season leaves the classification with an awkward 15-team setup. As such, every squad will make the postseason this year, starting with intra-division games in the first round. Yes, what was once one big 14-team league is now two divisions, with seven teams comprising the Eastern Division and eight teams making up the Western Division. The No. 1 team in the West will get a bye, while the remaining teams will cross-bracket in the first round of the playoffs.
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Bye, bye: Because of the number of AA teams, the seven teams in the East will each get a bye. Western teams get no such respite. Each team will play eight regular-season games. Once Bozeman Gallatin High School comes on line for the 2020-21 academic year, the divisions will balance. Also, the playoff format will change yet again, though what that will look like is so far undecided.
Will parity rein? West’s 20-14 win over Kalispell Flathead in the title game meant the championship trophy remained in Billings for three consecutive years. While most could see Billings Senior’s championships in 2016 and 2017 coming, West’s championship run was a little longer in the making. As this season kicks off, any one team doesn’t seem to be too far ahead of the pack. Though the quarterback-running back duo of Josh Erbacher and Demarcus Carr makes West a popular early-season favorite to repeat, the Golden Bears need to replenish in spots, while Flathead graduated 2,500-yard rusher Blake Counts and lost head coach Kyle Samson, who moved over to Montana Tech. The teams that remain healthiest during the regular season may be the ones with the inside track.
Time for a new king? While West and Billings Senior come in with plenty of recent success, the AA won’t be a cakewalk, similar to last season. Like West did in building up to its 2018 title, Butte returns plenty of starters as the Bulldogs look to bring home a state championship for the first time since 2012. Bozeman is almost always assured to reload. In the West, Helena Capital also returns a good core of players who just missed out on the postseason last year. Missoula Sentinel lost a plethora of seniors, as well, but return plenty of key components and some new playmakers in what the Spartans hope is a return to the postseason. Missoula Hellgate comes in with high hopes in year three of once again fielding a varsity program after winning a pair of contests in 2018.
Broncs a barometer? Maybe Senior’s early schedule will give an indication of how things might shake out this season. The Broncs, who return speedy receivers/corners Junior Bergen and Oran Nash-Bergen, open at home Friday with Capital, then travel to Sentinel and Bozeman on back-to-back weekends. Most would consider all four of those playoff teams (in the traditional sense), if not division contenders. If we get competitive games all three weekends, we could be in for an exciting season.