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Football recap: Local teams post memorable seasons

by CHUCK BANDEL
Valley Press | November 15, 2023 12:00 AM

Of all the high school varsity sports played, perhaps none is more impacted by chance happenings throughout the season than football. Even the bounce of the double-pointed ball during a game can change the course of play up and down the various leagues.

It is a law of physics that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It’s just the way football goes and it seems to find such a path every season, including the recently concluded 2023 fall sports season.

Nowhere was the impact of “happenings” likely felt more prominently than in the Western 6-player football conference, which was won, once again, by the Hot Springs Savage Heat.

The Heat were 7-0 and cruising toward another conference crown in their storied history under head coach Jim Lawson, who along the way captured his 100th coaching victory for the Sanders County school, when tragedy struck.

The death of one of their players, Jody Page, rocked the team, the coaching staff and the community, if not the whole region. The Heat’s next game, a showdown with league rival Noxon, was canceled.

Tributes and support for the team and its town poured in from throughout the area.

Hot Springs would rally and finish the season with a league title via their early in the year win over No. 2 West Yellowstone, and go on to vanquish their first round playoff opponent, Valier, 40-6 in Hot Springs.

They then hosted Harlowton-Ryegate-Judith Gap in a second round game, also in Hot Springs, but lost in the closing minute of play, 65-60 to end their season with a sparkling 8-1 record and the admiration of friends and foes for their courage and fortitude.

Noxon finished the year 5-2 and did not make the playoffs, largely because of their loss to West Yellowstone earlier in the season.

The West’s other six player team from the Sanders-Mineral Counties area, Alberton, finished their second season of varsity football as an independent (no co-op) team with an 0-8 record. But along the way, the Panthers, who did not have a senior on the team and often played with seven, or even the minimum six players in uniform, took part in the perhaps the most exciting game of the season when they took Lima to the limit before losing 39-38 when the Bears’ quarterback scored from 30 yards out as the final horn sounded following a hair-raising scramble in the backfield before he slipped free on the game-winning run.

The two-county area’s only 11-player team, Thompson Falls, which won the state B-8 championship in 2021, finished fourth in the West B standings and qualified for the state playoffs with a 21-12 win over Whitehall on the last day of the regular season.

Coach Jared Koskela’s Blue Hawks finished with a 3-7 record overall, and continued to show marked improvement over their first year of 11-player football when they one just one game.

The Blue Hawks then ran up against the Red Lodge Rams, who beat Thompson Falls 42-0 in Red Lodge during the first round of the Class B playoffs two weeks ago. Red Lodge was ousted the next week, suffering their first loss of the season to Florence-Carlton, who will play Manhattan this coming Saturday for the state championship.

Superior, a regular in the postseason mix for many seasons of Class C play, moved up to B-8 this year and after a slow start, staged a mid-season run that propelled them into the B-8 playoffs as the fourth seed from the West when they upended league rival Mission 68-30 in the last game of the regular season.

That avenged a late season loss last year to the Bulldogs and sent Superior and coach Jeff Schultz to Forsyth for a rematch of their playoff game last year when the Bobcats crushed the Doggies in Superior.

The outcome was no different this season, just the location as the Bobcats stampeded Forsyth on their home field, 54-20 to advance to the second round of this year’s playoffs.

However, the Bobcats, who traveled to Fort Benton this season, fell to the home town Longhorns 44-30, ending the Superior season with a 6-5 overall record.

The area’s other B-8 team, Plains, was coming off two straight no-win seasons, but this year the Horsemen picked up three wins as second-time coach Mike Tatum began reversing the string of losses that had prevailed at the school. Plains concluded the season with two wins in their last three games as the Horsemen continued to improve and build for the years ahead.

And last, but certainly not the least, the other football playing school in the area, St. Regis, which is part of a co-op team with Mullan, Idaho and plays most of its games in the Gem State, had another outstanding year, finishing with a sixth consecutive Idaho playoff appearance on their way to an 8-2 overall record. Coach Jesse Allan’s co-op Tigers lost only to Shelby, Montana in a non-league game, before meeting up with Hagerman, Idaho in a first round playoff game in Mullan last weekend.

Hagerman ended the Tigers’ season 54-12.

All-in-all it was another amazing season for local footballers.

    Noxon running back Shamus Wheeldon stiff arms Alberton defender Camden Notley during their season opening game in Alberton. (Chuck Bandel/VP-MI)
 
 
    Thompson Falls junior running back Kaiden Robbins (with ball) looks for room to run during the Blue Hawks 46-0 early season win over Anaconda in Thompson Falls. (Chuck Bandel/VP-MI)