MISSOULA — Simply put, high school sports fans in western Montana were spoiled in the fall of 2017.
Don't believe it? Just take a look at the list of teams that won a state championship this season.
In football, Columbia Falls claimed the Class A crown in an all-Western state championship game last Saturday against Hamilton.
Eureka repeated as the Class B state champions and Flint Creek won its first-ever Class C 8-man title as the combined force of Drummond and Philipsburg.
Then there's the Corvallis boys cross country team, which avenged last year's second-place finish to Frenchtown (which, should be mentioned, finished in second place overall this year).
The Missoula Hellgate boys' soccer team made it three straight years atop the Class AA field with a thrilling 4-2 overtime win against Western AA rival Kalispell Glacier (four combined goals were scored in extra time).
And lest we not forget the Missoula Sentinel volleyball team, which followed its undefeated 2016 season with a 2017 state championship. Between the Spartans' two title-run seasons, they've lost just one official match (45-1 overall).
Individually, Libby's Ryggs Johnston — owner of the record all-class state-golf round — broke the Class A record (68-66—134) when he won the state tournament nearly two months ago in Sidney.
In cross country, Polson's Beatrix Frissel was the queen of Class A as she brought home the individual title. Bigfork's Bryn Morley finished the Class B state cross country race the same way she had the previous two years — in first place. The only time Morley didn't claimed the cross country crown was her freshman year. Bryn placed second... The champion? Her sister, Makena.
Still not convinced the west had it best this year? Consider this, from former Missoulian sports reporter and current news reporter Kim Briggeman:
When Columbia Falls, Eureka and Flint Creek all won state championships, it marked just the second time in history that three Missoula area teams did so. The first time was in 2012 (Loyola Sacred Heart, Superior and Hot Springs).
Briggeman did a little more leg work to add perspective to what the west's success on the gridiron in 2017 meant:
- Teams in the Missoulian coverage area won just two state football titles in the 1980s: Arlee (Class C) in 1981 and Frenchtown (Class B) in 1983.
- Those teams combined for zero state titles from 1984-1990, a seven-year drought.
- In the 1990s, there were seven state titles, but just one multiple champion year: Hamilton (A) and Frenchtown (B) in 1997.
- The 2000s saw eight area state titles, including Frenchtown (A) and Drummond (C-8) in 2009.
- Now, in the last six years alone, area football teams have accounted for 11 state championships.
Pair that with the repeat success of school programs such as Hellgate soccer, Sentinel volleyball or Corvallis cross country and fans from Lincoln county to the Bitterroot, from Philipsburg to Libby (over 6,000 square miles of sheer area) had something to celebrate.
It wasn't just winning the season's final game that made the 2017 prep season special, either. Sometimes it was a moment — like Missoula Big Sky's Levi Janacaro willing his team to a crosstown win against Missoula Sentinel in week two of the Class AA football season.
Or the rematch of that game in the first-round of the playoffs, where the No. 7-seeded Spartans knocked off the No. 2-seeded Eagles in a snow bowl that required pregame plowing at Missoula County Stadium. It was the first crosstown playoff game in the Garden City since the 1994 state title game between Big Sky and Missoula Hellgate.
Speaking of the Knights, they were back on the gridiron after a one-year hiatus from the Class AA varsity level. Although Hellgate was unable to snap its infamous losing streak, fans of the Red and Gold have a lot to look forward to in the future
Some stories went beyond the action on the field — or court. Big Sky's Grace Lowder shared a heart-wrenching and inspirational story illustrating how sports can help heal.
Similarly, Charlo football played its Class C 8-man football season for more than just a 'W' or 'L' on the schedule. They played for a fallen teammate.
It's those stories, particularly at the high school level, that help make sports captivating. Each player that laces his/her cleats, spikes or sneakers has a story to tell, too, and through their particular arena each week they get to add to it.
Certainly, some of those stories slipped through the cracks (please, if you have a story idea, email firstname.lastname@example.org). But the first third of the prep sports season certainly wasn't short on plot lines.
Which made for a legendary fall sports season, now giving way to winter.