MISSOULA — The outcome in Missoula Sentinel's matchup against Helena Capital under the lights Friday night at Missoula County Stadium may very well have been influenced by a reflective moment in the darkness on Thursday.
After a high-intensity weightlifting session in the Spartans' weight room, Sentinel's 22 seniors and the rest of the 70-some members of the team stopped their workout and sat down in silence. The lights were turned off and upbeat music from the sound system turned into a meditative walk-through geared toward football.
The visualization exercise was designed to stoke internal fires for the young men in purple and gold a day before the biggest game of the season.
It also served as a brief respite from a fierce week of practice.
"It’s been a really good week of practice, high energy; there’s a lot of urgency you can feel it between everyone," Sentinel quarterback Rylan Ortt said. "Coaches are really on us … because this is almost a win or go-home situation."
It's not quite a do-or-die scenario for the Spartans. A win certainly helps (it would secure a playoff spot in the Class AA state tournament bracket), but there is still some hope for the Spartans (4-4 overall) if they falter against the Bruins (6-3).
A Bozeman (3-5) loss to Billings Skyview (3-6) and/or a Kalispell Glacier (3-4) loss to Missoula Hellgate and Sentinel is in regardless of the Spartans' outcome against Capital.
The Knights (0-9) travel to the Flathead Valley, trying to spoil Glacier's playoff bid.
But Sentinel's seniors — on senior night, no less — don't want to leave their fate to chance.
"I just want to win, we all want to win. It's a pretty big deal to be in the playoffs," senior wide out and defensive back Brandon Morley said. "Obviously we want to have the senior-night atmosphere, but we gotta focus on the game."
To top the Bruins, Sentinel will have to slow a three-headed rushing attack that runs out of a heavy set. Capital has run for 2,381 yards on 354 carries (6.7 yards per carry) according to the team's maxpreps.com page. The bulk of the load has come from senior running back Seth Schneider, who has 1,304 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.
But Helena Capital can also hand the ball off to Alec McVey-Touchette (406 yards rushing), or quarterback Matt McGinley can keep it (431 yards rushing).
"They're going to run 12-personnel, 11-personnel; (there's) always tight ends in the games and big kids and they use that to exploit their best runners," Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said. "We're going to have to be disciplined. ... You can be in the right spot, but you gotta tackle."
That execution was exactly what the Spartans were asked to visualize on Thursday. They'll try to see it to fruition at 7 p.m. Friday.
Missoula Big Sky has already been assured a home playoff game — Missoula's first for any Class AA school since 2004 — by way of its 7-2 record. A win against Butte (2-7) would guarantee the Eagles no worse than the No. 3 seed, and a shot at No. 2.
To finish in the top two, though, Big Sky needs to not only win but also get some help from Kalispell Flathead. The Braves (5-3) travel to Vigilante stadium to play Helena (6-1). A Bengal loss and a Big Sky win means the Eagles will be bestowed the second seed, but Helena's only loss of the season came to unbeaten Billings Senior back in September.
But that's out of the Eagles' control. A win against the Bulldogs isn't.
Missoula's two small-school teams, Class C 6-man squad Valley Christian and Class B Loyola Sacred Heart, are already into their playoff brackets, but they both play Saturday.
The Eagles (4-5), the No. 4 seed from the Western C 6-man division, take on the South Conference's No. 1 seed, Bridger (7-1), at 7 p.m. Saturday. It's a 345-mile bus ride for Valley Christian to meet the Scouts of southern Montana.
Loyola (5-3) — winners of its last three games of the regular season, two of which came against Class B playoff opponents — host Malta/Whitewater/Saco (6-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday.