PHILIPSBURG - "We weren't better than everybody last year. We were a better team than everybody else."
It's those words from Titans Head Coach Mike Cutler that constantly ring in the ears of his players, coaches and parents. And it was that mantra that lead Flint Creek to its first MHSA Class C 8-Man Football State Championship in 2017
Now he takes a team that lost three seniors into a new season, attempting to defend that title.
Well, sort of.
"Our preparation is always going to be the same whether we have the success we had last season or not," said Cutler, who enters his second season as the Titans Head Coach. "Our job now is to get these kids to understand that this year's team didn't win the state championship. Last year's (team) did. Not one person on this team won the state championship. We talk about team all the time, so this year's team hasn't won squat yet."
That is true, but it's hard for fans and the opposition to look past the fact that Flint Creek went an impressive 13-0 in 2017, getting to a running clock in almost every game. They outscored opponents 624-146 and outgained them 4,247 to 2,041 in total yards.
But as with any team, the Titans lost three to graduation in QB Colton Grange, C Andrew Gomez and OL/DL Rocco Crittela. Grange was both the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year for the Western Division and is now gearing up for his first season at Montana Tech.
Stepping in to fill the hole under center is Cutler's son Kade Cutler. Kade, a sophomore, back up Grange last year and saw a limited number of downs in varsity action. He'll now be expected to step up and take the reins of a potentially powerful attack.
When asked about stepping into this new role, Kade Cutler responded with a quiet confidence.
"(There's) a little bit of pressure," Kade said. "I'm confident in myself and my team and I think we're going to do pretty well."
Part of that attack in 2018 was Jaxon Lee. Now a junior, Lee's sophomore season was one that put him on everyone's radar as he caught 54 passes for 1,101 yards and 22 touchdowns. His stats accounted for nearly one-third of Flint Creek's passing game.
Now, with opponents fully aware of his abilities, Lee is ready to make this season ever better.
"I love it. I want to be the guy to beat," said Lee with a grin on his face. "That'll just bring the biggest guys on me and make me better."
The big gun in the backfield last year was Colby Manley. Manley - now one of four seniors on the team with Kane Hess, Riley Allen and Luke Holland - was second to Grange in total yards with 915 and 18 TDs. Coach Cutler expects nothing less from Manley as the team heads into Saturday's game with the Mountain Cats from Clark Fork.
With multiple weapons to choose from, Cutler thinks other teams have gone some decisions to make. When asked about the possibility of opponents double-teaming Lee, Cutler responded, "I hope they continue to feel that way, because you're going to get a good old fashioned load of Colby Manley. They can think that all they want.
"Kane Hess is playing on our line, but there are times he'll line up as our fullback and he'll be a problem. Daniel Brabender has now moved to tight end in most sets. However Riley (Allen) will line up there as well.
"So pick your poison. Who do you want to take away?"
When the four seniors were asked about now being the senior leadership on a team defending the state title, Hess quietly responded with, "We're ready to do it again."
As they stepped into new roles for this year, Hess has taken over the line calls - letting each player know which way they are attacking the opposing linemen in a coded format. It's also a call that he'll have to make as Kade Cutler makes any audibles at the line.
"We were kind of overlooked last year," said Holland, who will see time in several different receiving spots in the Titan offense. "Now everybody kind of knows."
When asked how this year differs from 2017, Allen said, "We can lay it all on the line and give it our all. It's kind of like now or never."
Flint Creek's title may have translated into more popularity, as there are 26 players on the opening day roster. Last year the Titans had just 19.
In addition to head man, Flint Creek will be have a contingent of coaches that Cutler says are the best in the state. They will include returning coaches J.C. Holland and Nate Bignell, with newcomer Ray Hess joining the squad. Jerry Metesh will also be lending his experience to the Titans as a volunteer coach.
Flint Creek opens play Saturday at 3 p.m. in Naranchae Stadium against the Mountain Cats of Clark Fork. They then travel to Troy August 31 for a 5 p.m. game before playing their open opener against Charlo September 7 in Philipsburg.