MISSOULA — Missoula Sentinel has been the top-ranked team in the state poll all season, is still undefeated, has put up video game numbers outscoring teams 428-54 for the best point different in the state and is now bound for the State AA championship game for the first time in 36 years — and the Spartans have to go on the road.
So why is Sentinel being forced to head five hours east to similarly undefeated Billings West next Friday?
Well, it was a literal coin flip.
The Eastern AA won the flip and got to choose whether it would have home-field advantage for football or volleyball if like seeds (West No. 1 and East No. 1) made the championship game, according to Sentinel AD Brian Fortmann. The Eastern AA chose football, so the Western AA got volleyball at that Sept. 14 meeting of Class AA athletic directors, according to Billings Schools AD Mark Wahl.
“I wish it were here,” Fortmann said. “Everyone wishes it was here. But it is what it is.”
“Boy, for the city of Missoula, it’d be great to host,” Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said after his Spartans thumped Billings Senior in the semifinals, 42-7, while the other semifinal between West and Bozeman was still ongoing.
“I think that would be very special, but, you know, we’re in it. That was our goal, right? And there’s been a lot of situations why it’s in the east. It’s out of our control. These kids, they’ve met what their goal was, right? To play as long as we can. There’s no more we could do, right? So, wherever that game is, we’re going to go celebrate and have some fun."
West squeaked out a 24-17 win about an hour after Sentinel's game ended to set up an undefeated showdown 7 p.m. Friday in Billings.
“Some people were penciling that game in,” West coach Rob Stanton said about the impending championship game, “but we weren’t. We had to get by (Bozeman) and we barely did. Hopefully it makes us better next week.”
Hosting duties for football and volleyball will be swapped next year to balance things out. That’s only if the athletic directors decide to stick with the same format, Wahl said, because the decision to flip a coin was part of their pandemic plan.
They plan things out in two-year increments, so in 2019, the decision of who would host if like seeds made the title game in 2020, when the AA became a full 16 teams, was determined by strength of schedule, Wahl said. But strength of schedule couldn’t be used this year because teams didn’t play non-conference games due to the pandemic.
With 15 teams last year in two conferences, the eight playoff teams were re-seeded 1-8 in the quarterfinals, meaning there wasn’t the potential for like seeds to meet in the championship game. There were no duplicate seed numbers in 2018 either, the final year of the one large conference.
With soccer already locked into alternating between east and west this year, the AA went with the conference not hosting football getting to host volleyball this year. That was possible because Class AA is hosting state tournament games at individual schools instead of a single site this year due to the pandemic. That’s why Western AA No. 1 Helena Capital is hosting Eastern AA No. 1 Great Falls CMR in the State AA volleyball game 2 p.m. Saturday, Wahl said.
Attendance for the state championship game is currently at two participants per player, cheerleader and coach. Wahl said there’s potential the school may look into raising that limit for the championship game. It’s been that amount all year, and that’s equated to about 350-500 fans, Wahl said. Missoula County has limited attendance to 500 people.
“It’s really hard to change given the cases we have in Billings,” Wahl said. “The county doesn’t mandate anything, but they’ve given recommendations to what they’re comfortable with. We’ve went to two early and got into a flow with it. People have understood, and that’s what we’ve stayed with throughout the playoffs.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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