MISSOULA — Loyola Sacred Heart's 54-14 win last week against Anaconda checked all the boxes indicating the Rams (4-3 overall, 3-1 in Western B) are headed in the right direction.
Friday night's matchup against third-ranked Bigfork (5-0, 3-0) at Loyola's Rollin Field is when the Rams will receive their grade.
"We have not beat that top echelon team," Loyola head coach Todd Hughes said of his squad, which sits immediately behind the Vikings in the conference standings. "We’ve had some really close games with the Huntley game. Fairfield and even (undefeated, No. 1-ranked) Eureka was a 3-point game going into the fourth quarter.
"We’ve gotta get over that hump, and Bigfork will be a great litmus test for that right there."
The Rams feel ready to take the next step, too. Hughes has been quizzing his quarterback, Scotty Twite, on the sidelines when Loyola is on defense. The Rams' system relies heavily on their quarterback's decision making.
"(Coach Hughes) just asks me what I’m seeing, what fronts I’m getting," Twite said of the dialogue on the bench. "He talks about the safeties a lot and he just wants to make sure I’m getting us into the right plays."
Last week, Twite was doing just that. He was 12-for-15 passing for 182 yards and four touchdowns through the air against Anaconda. The entire scoring quartet went to Griz recruit David Koppang, who is just one of the athletes — and leaders — Hughes points to as reasons why his team, currently in third place in the West, is on the precipice.
"... We got a lot of individual guys who are really, really, good football players, and we just have to get them to come together to become a really good football team," Hughes said.
"I’m hoping we’re doing that right now."
In the Class AA, Missoula Sentinel (4-2) starts a tough final three-game stretch against Billings West (4-3) on Friday. Including the Golden Bears, all three of the Spartans remaining regular season matchups are against teams with winning records (Helena High, 5-1, Oct. 19; Helena Capital, Oct. 27, 6-1).
It makes getting off to a good start for the final slog against West — in Billings — that much more important for Sentinel.
Missoula Big Sky has an easier road to the finish on paper. The Eagles (5-2) start the final third of the schedule on the road against Bozeman Friday night. The Hawks have faltered after opening the season on a three-game winning streak. Bozeman has lost its last four (3-4 overall), including a 48-28 defeat against Helena last week.
The Eagles will try to extend Bozeman's woes before Big Sky draws Kalispell Glacier (2-4) and Butte (2-5) to close out the regular season.
No start to the final three weeks of the season is tougher than Missoula Hellgate's, however. The Knights, still looking for their first win since the 2012 season, host Billings Senior, and their 20-game winning streak. The Broncs have handled every bit of pressure being the defending Class AA state champion brings with it, and all signs of the streak extending to 21 seem likely.
But what a story it would be if Hellgate could pull off the upset.
After the Knights potential date with destiny, they close out the season in the Flathead Valley; first the Braves, then the Wolfpack. Both games are in Kalispell.
Missoula's Class C school has a big game as well, but it's not until Saturday afternoon. Valley Christian travels to West Yellowstone, which was topped 59-0 by conference leader White Sulphur Springs. It was the Wolverines first Western C 6-man loss of the season.
Eagles coach Shane Sander said White Sulphur simply wore down West Yellowstone (6-1, 4-1).
"It was like a boxing match," Valley Christian's coach said of watching the game on film. "They just smashed them in the mouth over and over and over again, play after play. White Sulphur didn't throw the ball one time."
Valley Christian (4-3, 4-1) has a bit more finesse, though, matching an equally speedy and similarly sized Wolverines squad.
And with second place on the line in the conference, Saturday's contest could become a track meet.
"... I’m not sure what to expect," Sander said. "I’m hoping we can go down there and catch them a little off guard."