Posted: Aug 24, 2012 8:23 AM by Richie Melby - MTN Sports
Football season officially kicks off this weekend in Montana, as select teams take to the gridiron. It seems like just a few months ago Billings West and Helena Capital were battling it out in a blizzard in the Magic City, with the Bruins continuing to be the team of the 2000s after capturing the program's 6th State AA Championship since the turn of the century. Will we see more of the same in 2012 or is it time for a changing of the guard on the AA fields?
All the buzz surrounding Capital starts with running back Gunnar Brekke. Coach Murphy's workhorse went for 190 yards and three touchdowns in the title-clinching game and is expected to be even better this season, possibly the front-runner for Gatorade Player of the Year. Brekke, who has already committed to the Griz, has packed on solid muscle this off-season and looks like the type of player who is prepared to handle the expectations.
"Last year we had such a strong defense and we kind of played off that," said head coach Pat Murphy. "I think we might be a little more explosive on offense (this season). We have more speed so expect bigger things on offense."
There is a lot of talent that graduated (Kidder, Wilson, Coker, Michelotti, etc...) but expect Pat Murphy and the Bruins to keep up their winning ways behind the running attack of Gunnar Brekke.
It's safe to say Billings West lost a majority of their play-makers, particularly on the offensive end. Brady Gustafson, the 6-foot-7 (or 6-foot-8 depending on your roster) QB is over in Missoula competing for snaps in Griz camp. Jayc Van Zee, who caught a majority of those passes, is still in Billings but competing for Rocky Mountain College. Clay Compton, Jordan Brusio and others are gone, leaving so many positions that need to be addressed. But fear not West fans, Coach Klaboe always has a great game-plan going into the season.
Per Gazette online sports editor Slim Kimmel, Ryan Gallogly will replace Gustafson and Trace Alkire is likely his go-to target. Stewart Harris returns at middle linebacker for the defense, where he will be expected to make plays all over the field. There were a lot of juniors on the 2011 runner-up team, so don't count West out of anything just because of their graduating seniors.
Jack Johnson has a chance to make it 14 State Championships at CMR with an athletic team of Rustlers on the field this season. The offense appears dangerous with Jayse McLean under center for his second season as a starter. Hunter Thomsen, who rushed for over 200 yards in a couple 2011 games, will see a lot of touches every Friday night. Josh Horner can honestly play anywhere from quarterback to tight end and will keep defenses guessing nearly every snap. Helping the Rustlers with a complicated playbook is the fact that many of their athletes are Honor Roll students and can adapt immediately at the line of scrimmage.
"The game has really changed so much, it's so much more complex" explained Coach Johnson, "but we have so many bright kids on this team that it will help."
The key for the Rustlers is the offensive line, where Dylan Mahoney will pave the way for Coach Hartman and the boys up front. Mahoney has already given a verbal commitment to Montana State and will help open gaps for Thomsen and the backs. The Pfennigs brothers, Tanner Olson and Will Smith are a few other names to keep an eye on.
"We're not quite as deep as we have been, it's actually the smallest senior class I've ever had in my 40 years here," Johnson said, "but it's a good group of athletic football players."
Across town in the Electric City, the storied Bison will look to take Coach Krahe to the postseason for the first time in his tenure.
"They know what I expect and I'm getting to know the kids real well," said Krahe. "We have a lot of guys back and when we get familiar with everyone things go smooth."
Expect to see Colter Posey touch the football anywhere from the quarterback position to running back and catching passes spread out at receiver. He's one of the more athletic players on the field and Krahe will try to use that to his advantage. If Posey isn't under center, then Kolby Sukut will get the nod at QB and he has numerous weapons to choose from. Dylan Swandal is listed at tight end, but he's strong enough to block on running or passing downs. Teylor Smith impressed during the scrimmage, especially when he took the first play 60 yards to pay-dirt.
The defense will be key, as athletic players like Sean Egan, Jordan Jernigan and Dylan Tatarka have to step up and shut down the opposing offenses passing attacks. Krahe knows it's up to his upperclassmen to take the younger kids under their wing, which could lead the Bison back to the postseason.
"We talk a lot about leadership on and off the field," said Krahe. "That's something they're going to emulate for these younger kids and we'll build on that and become closer as a team."
The team I'm most interested to see take the field is Kalispell Glacier. Coach Grady Bennett and I had a chance to talk during the week of the Shrine Game (where he was head coach of the West) and he was very excited about the upcoming season. Luke Halliburton headed to the Cats, Caleb Harris to the Griz, and that just shows the kind of talent Bennett has started putting around this Wolfpack program.
That kind of talent is still present in 2012, as Bennett has Taylor Hulslander back at quarterback, where he led Class AA with 2500 yards and 24 touchdowns a season ago.
"It starts with your quarterback," Bennett said. "If you have a returning quarterback that's obviously huge. Taylor had a huge year as a junior last year and was really in command of our offense. He also has most of his (returning) weapons on the perimeter."
Glacier likes to run that fast-paced "Oregon offense" where you'll see the players on the sidelines holding up signs with drawings on them, representing each skill player's responsibility on the next play. Kyle Griffith caught a whopping 72 passes in 2011 and paired with Andrew Nelson at the receiver spots, Hulslander has his targets. There are also a handful of running backs for Bennett to choose from, starting with Alek Mitchell. He had double digit touchdowns a year ago, while guys like Griffith, Noah James and Kellyn Faraone could also handle the rock at any given time.
The big question appears to be on defense, where someone will need to fill the voids left on the D-line by Harris and Halliburton. Shane St. Onge leaves another hole at linebacker, but with so many talented athletes to choose from, Bennett and the staff should have no trouble putting guys in the right spot.
Teams to watch for: Helena High, Bozeman
Semifinals: Glacier over Capital, CMR over Helena
Championship: Glacier over CMR
I really like these four football teams and find it very difficult to bet against the tradition-rich programs like CMR and Capital, especially with their success in the last 10 years, but Glacier has improved so much since they joined Class AA and it could be time for a new program to rise to the top.