A relentless, stonewall defense and a potent multi-pronged offense led the way as the Clark Fork Mountain Cats earned a berth in Saturday’s Montana 8-man football championship game via a 44-14 win over Great Falls Central.
The unbeaten, Mountain Cats (12-0) will now collide with undefeated Eastern Montana power Fairview at Rocky Mountain College in Billings for the 8-man crown.
Fairview blew out Fort Benton 48-8 in the day’s other semifinal matchup in Fairview. Great Falls Central’s season came to an end with an 8-3 mark.
Senior running back/linebacker Trey Green ran for three Mountain Cats touchdowns and junior quarterback Bryan Mask added two ground TDs as Clark Fork fought off a pesky, talented Central team.
The defense shut down the Mustangs’ vaunted passing and running attack with multiple sacks and “hurries” of star Great Falls quarterback Shane Girres.
Green, and defensive linemen Aaron Waddle and Jacob Lipinski overpowered the Great Falls offense and spent a good portion of the game chasing down and sacking Girres while the Clark Fork defensive backs contained and shut down the Mustangs’ passing game.
With Green gobbling up first downs the Cats marched quickly downfield on their opening possession, only to see that drive halted when Mustang defensive back Jackson Malsam intercepted a Mask pass in the end zone. However, Great Falls could not move the ball against the attacking Clark Fork defense and punted on their initial possession.
Behind Lipinski and Waddle’s hole-popping blocking the Cats moved back downfield on a drive that concluded with Green breaking through the Central defense on his way to a 17-yard touchdown romp, giving the Cats a 6-0 lead with 6:56 remaining in the first quarter.
Great Falls overcame a sack on their next drive, stalling at the Clark Fork 17-yard line. On fourth-and-17 from the 19- yard line, the Mustangs set up for a field goal attempt but instead faked the boot and scored from 19 yards out when Girres found wideout Kolby Aderhold for six points.
With 2:55 to play in the opening frame, the Mountain Cats began a drive behind Mask’s passing, and running by a committee of backs led by junior Jake Calloway that took them to the GFC 5-yard line. On third-and-goal, Green powered over from the four, followed by a Mask two-point conversion toss to Kyler Francis that put the Cats up 14-8 at the end of the first quarter.
Great Falls’ opening drive of the second quarter came to a crushing end when Green stopped the ‘Stangs ball carrier on a fourth-and3 situation, giving the ball back to Clark Fork on their own 37. However, that drive came to a halt when Great Falls intercepted a Mask pass. Once again, the Cats defense came to the rescue, shutting the Mustangs down on a fourth-and-9 attempt that handed the ball back to Clark Fork.
Shortly thereafter, Callaway broke loose on a 43-yard scamper to paydirt, a score that boosted Clark Fork to a 22-6 lead after a successful 2-point conversion run by Green with 6:35 to play in the first half. The Mustangs finally got their passing game going following the Cats score when Girres blew past the Clark Fork defense on a 48-yard TD run. A uccessful 2-point after try cut the Cats lead to 22-14 with 3:51 to go in the first half.
Neither team could find the end zone for the final three minutes and the horn sounded with Clark Fork leading 22-14.
Clark Fork came out of to start the second half with a fired-up defense that made life miserable for Girres. The Mustangs went four-and-out on their first offensive series and punted.
With Mask completing passes and Green powering through holes opened by the offensive line, Clark Fork moved to the Great Falls 1-yard line, where, with 7:28 to go in the third quarter, Green scored his third TD of the day. A failed extra point try left the Mountain Cats with a 28-14 advantage.
From there the defense amped it up, repeatedly hounding and sacking Girres while also shutting down the Mustangs running game.
Despite two costly penalties, the Cats moved the ball steadily downfield, again behind Mask’s throwing and Green’s running. With 1:36 to play in the third quarter, Mask dropped back on what looked to be a passing play, then tucked the ball in and ran nine yards into the Great Falls end zone. Running back Welsey Buchanan popped over for the two-point conversion giving Clark Fork a 36-14 lead as time expired in the third quarter.
With Lipinski and Waddle spending the fourth quarter blowing up the Mustangs backfield and making life miserable for Girres, Great Falls was unable to mount any substantial drives. Mask closed out the game’s scoring when he scrambled in from five yards out for six points, then found Isaiah Kovalsky in the end zone for the two-point conversion.
With the lead at 44-14 and the clock ticking, the Cats defense put the finishing touches on an outstanding day’s work, sacking Girres three times on Great Falls’ final possession. The Mountain Cats got possession with a minute to go and took a knee to end the game.
“We did our job,” Waddle said amid the post-game celebration. “We were finishing plays and doing what we’ve worked on all year.”
Coach Dave Shultz told his team to enjoy the win and be ready to get back to work in preparation for a solid Fairview team.
“One more game, one more win fellas,” Shultz told the team. “We have a lot of hard work to do.”
Clearly, this has been a magical season for the Mountain Cats. Schultz credited leadership and hard work as the reasons Clark Fork will be in the championship matchup.
“When you have guys like this,” he said referring to his group of players. “It makes it easier to be successful. Fairview is tough, no doubt. It will be a good game.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Green. “The reason for this win and this season has been leadership,” he said.