MISSOULA — To this point, it has been a magical season for the Missoula Sentinel football team.
Sitting at 10-1, with its lone loss on a last-second field goal to undefeated Butte, the Spartans are in position to make their first state title game since 1984. On Friday night at Missoula County Stadium, they will face 9-1 Bozeman in the first Class AA state semifinal game to be hosted by Sentinel in at least 25 years.
“You go into a senior year thinking you want everything to go really well,” Sentinel senior Caden Paulson said. “And that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened.”
Head coach Dane Oliver and his Spartans have been in this position before. Two years ago, to be exact.
In 2017, when only eight teams made the Class AA playoffs, the Spartans — a No. 7 seed — upset Missoula Big Sky in a crosstown game to make the semifinals. Sentinel lost in the semifinals against eventual state champion Billings Senior, but it was the first time since 1989 the Spartans had made the semis.
This year, everything has been different. Sentinel is not the underdog and while Bozeman has put together an impressive collection of wins this year, the Spartans are the higher seeded team.
The two squads match up well, at least on paper. Bozeman is averaging 33.5 points per game, while allowing only 8.4 each contest. Sentinel, meanwhile, is scoring 31.8 and allowing 10.4.
“It’s just a well-coached football team,” Spartan head coach Dane Oliver said. “That’s the way it should be in the semifinals, right? Four teams left, you’re going to get their best shot. We’ve been working for this and just excited to see the boys perform.”
Paulson, a captain, has been one of the faces for Sentinel throughout the year. A defensive back and wide receiver, he is on the field quite a bit.
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Paulson scored the first touchdown of his career during the Spartans' playoff opener against Billings Skyview, but where he has really excelled is at defensive back.
One of the best players at the spot on the team, he is often involved in some of the team’s most important plays.
“In that big moment, he’s the guy you want guarding their best player,” Oliver said. “But he plays with emotion and passion and he’s a little undersized, but he plays big.”
If Sentinel is to take a step further than any Missoula Class AA team has made in years, it will need to put together its best game of the season thus far.
Hawk quarterback Jake D’Agostino is 100 of 175 for 1,351 yards and 14 touchdown passes this year, but Bozeman’s real strength is its ground game. Montana commit Asher Croy has rushed 216 times for 1,393 yards and 24 touchdowns, logging 100 or more yards eight times this year.
As a team, the Hawks are averaging 218.6 yards per game on the ground. D’Agostino is a threat to run, as are a handful of other Bozeman players.
Sentinel counters with Griz commit Jaxon Lee and his 183.5 all-purpose yards per game, along with quarterback Dayton Bay and his sterling 73.1% completion percentage.
“They’re kinda like us, they have the same type of physicality and the same type of play style as us,” Paulson said. “It’s just dangerous when you have two teams that know each other and know what they want to establish in the game.”