GRANITE COUNTY – Its déjà vu all over again.
When Clark Fork and Flint Creek met last year to start the 2018 season, the Titans were in transition. They were on a 12-game win streak, defending state champs and working several new players into key positions.
This year, Flint Creek is riding a 25-game win streak, still the defending state champs and again working a group of new players into key positions.
None of which was lost on Clark Fork Head Coach Jeff Schultz.
“Lucky us, right?”
Before we get to the analysis, let’s take look at what Friday night’s game in Superior, Montana will be like…
Since the formation of the Flint Creek Co-Op, the Titans and Mountain Cats have met once a year for five years (2014-2018). Flint Creek has won every matchup, only fueling Clark Fork’s desire to beat the Titans and start the year with a win. The closest game was when Flint Creek beat Clark Fork on the road in 2016, 38-14.
Friday’s season opener leaves both teams with little to no information. They both know what the other had last year, but neither really knows what the transitions due to graduation and families moving have done to the opposition.
Flint Creek returns three seniors from last year’s championship squad in lineman Wyatt Rigby, receiver Daniel Brabender and defensive back/full back Conley Wagner. The three will act as team captains along with junior Kade Cutler, who returns at quarterback after leading 2018’s team. All four made the All-Western Conference team with only Brabender left off the All-State selections.
The Mountain Cats have seven returning players from 2018, a vast improvement after being ravaged by 2017’s graduating class that left just two seniors on last year’s squad. All seven were All-Western Conference last year, with Trey Green and Isaiah Kovalsky both making the All-State roster.
When they didn’t have the ball last year, the Mountain Cats had issues stopping opponents. In 10 games they allowed 407 points (40.7 ppg), behind Plains and Troy.
“With as many points as we gave up last year, you’d have thought we never even practiced defense,” laughed Schultz. “We focused on heart last year, but we’ve focused this year on everyone doing their job; an unselfish approach. Not just taking on a block and not worrying where your help is at. If you just take on your block and don’t worry about them getting outside, that’s selfish. And as everyone knows getting out side is a death sentence in 8-man.
“We don’t care who gets the glory, it’s all about getting the stop and getting the ball back to the offense.”
Conversely, The Titans have always been a defense first squad. In their second straight title run they allowed just 10 ppg (130 points in 13 games).
The Titans may have taken the biggest hit to their club’s machinery on the offensive side of the ball, where only Kade Cutler and Brabender return to their regular roles. Gone are two senior linemen, a running back and wide receiver – all of whom were All-State selections last year.
In his sophomore campaign Cutler threw for 1,228 yards and 26 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Many of those went to receivers that are no longer with the team and so the Titans will have to rely on underclassmen stepping up to fill the void.
“(It’s) just the next man up,” said Co-Head Coach JC Holland earlier this year. “Nobody’s bigger than anybody else. I think a lot of these kids are excited that it’s their time to shine.”
Flint Creek will also have to develop a rushing game. Colby Manley was the lead rusher in both of the Titans championship runs, but his graduation to Rocky Mountain College will again ask younger players to step up and carry on the tradition.
Green will likely carry the load for the Mountain Cats as he returns in the backfield, running behind the seasoned blocking of Hewston Coon.
“We felt like last year we grew a ton,” observed Schultz of Clark Fork. “Last year we got our feet wet in this game and now we want to show how we’ve improved.
“We’ve been hammering being 1-0. And not just to win the game, but to win every play. If you make a mistake and fail on the last play, you don’t care and you move on to the next play because you’re just trying to go 1-0. Not trying to perfect, just trying to win the next one.”
“We’re not one of those coaching staffs that see something on ESPN last night and we have to use the next week. We have our system and we have been fortunate to have kids that can play our system. These kids could run our practice without our being here. Now of course they wouldn’t have us harping at them… (laugh) But they know what is expected.”