First-Time Frontrunner

first_img Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. The season of great expectations teetered on collapse after three weeks, but now the Glacier Wolfpack have won seven straight games and are the league frontrunner entering the Class AA football playoffs.Glacier (8-2) is the No. 1 seed — Kalispell’s first since the 1980s — and hosts No. 8 Helena Capital (5-5) at Legends Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2. The Wolfpack are in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, but for the first time they hold the top ranking. Five teams were tied at 7-2 entering the final weekend of the regular season — Butte, Glacier, Great Falls C.M. Russell, Helena and Billings West. Butte, Helena and CMR all won, but a touchdown with five seconds remaining in Glacier’s 21-10 win over Missoula Big Sky gave the Wolfpack the ultimate tiebreaker. Glacier needed to win by 11 points or more for the top seed.The No. 1 ranking guarantees Glacier home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Last year’s fourth-ranked team hosted and won its first playoff game before falling in the semifinals. Now the group is trying to take the next step and become the first Kalispell team to play in the state championship game since the 2000 Flathead Braves.First comes Capital, a team that has haunted Glacier until recently. Earlier this month both squads met in Kalispell and Glacier beat its long-time nemesis for the first time, 33-7. The Wolfpack’s stingy defense allowed only 110 total yards while the ruthless offense racked up nearly 400. The dominating victory once again highlighted Glacier’s all-around talent this season. From the opening days of summer practices, the Wolfpack have been widely considered a bona fide state championship contender. Almost every starter on offense and the bulk of defense returned from last year’s 9-3 playoff team, including all-state quarterback Taylor Hulslander and all-state wide receiver Kyle Griffith. But the excitement dimmed considerably after Glacier lost back-to-back games in the second and third weeks of the season — 24-21 to CMR and 23-17 to Helena.In hindsight, head coach Grady Bennett believes those two early losses could have been the best thing to happen to the Wolfpack.“You hate losing them and you feel awful because those were two games we probably shouldn’t have lost,” Bennett said. “But the goal was never to go undefeated. I look back at those two losses and I know that’s the reason we’re playing the way we are now.”After falling to the bottom of the standings with a 1-2 record, Bennett held a team meeting to remind players of their goals and motivations. Everyone, including the coaches, emerged with a renewed focus and energy, Bennett said.“We went back to focusing on the things that really matter,” he said. The Wolfpack went on to deliver Bozeman, ranked No. 1 at the time, its first loss of the season, 7-3. “Bozeman was confirmation,” Bennett said. “It confirmed that we are legitimate contenders in this league and we’re as good as anybody.”In the last seven games, Glacier has outscored opponents 266-44. In the second half of games this season, the Wolfpack have outscored opponents 172-26.“The third and fourth quarters have been so strong,” Bennett said. “That’s all because of hard work. We get stronger as the game goes along. That’s another great quality of this team.”The defense is the top-ranked in the state, allowing only 14 touchdowns and three field goals. Senior Devin Jeffries has 11.5 sacks, 71.5 tackles and an interception. Senior Reid Siderius leads the state in interceptions with seven. Senior Rial Gunlikson has 93.5 tackles and an interception. Junior Evan Epperly has five interceptions. The defense overall has 22 interceptions and 31 sacks. Email “For sure this is the best defense Glacier has ever had,” Bennett said. “It may be best defense I’ve ever had as a head coach (in 22 years).”The offense is the second best in the state behind only Butte. Glacier is averaging about 37 points per game. Butte, the No. 2 seed, is averaging 42 while its defense is allowing 28. Griffith, a senior, has put together a remarkable season on offense. He has 69 catches for 946 yards and 11 TDs. He has also rushed for 105 yards and another three scores. As the team’s kicker, Griffith has hit five of nine field goals. Hulslander, a senior, has thrown for 2,126 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He’s ranked second in the state for total offense with 245 yards per game behind Butte’s Dallas Cook, who averages 351. Besides Griffith, Hulslander’s favorite target has been senior receiver Nic Cramer, who has 44 catches for 439 yards. Glacier has several candidates who can lead the rushing attack every game. Junior Noah James is the leading rusher with 92 carries and 386 yards and seven touchdowns. Senior Aaron Mitchell has 344 yards and six TDs. Logan Jones has 160 yards and a score and Kellyn Faraone has 138 yards and a score.Bennett credits the growth of the offensive line for allowing Glacier’s offense to power past opponents.Glacier is the first team from Kalispell to earn the top playoff seed since the Flathead Braves in the 1980s. The Braves lost to CMR in the 1980 state championship. In 1985, Flathead finished 8-2 after falling to Great Falls in the semifinals. The last team from Kalispell to surge through the playoffs and win a state championship was in 1959. Flathead won its second straight title, beating Butte 39-0. In 1970, Class AA did not have a postseason and Flathead was crowned champion after finishing with the best regular season record, 9-0-1.Flathead won its first Class AA state title in 1950, beating Butte 55-21. The two teams met again the following year and the game ended with a 7-7 tie and they were named co-state champions. Most recently, Flathead, which Bennett coached for, lost to Helena Capital 35-0 in the 2000 title game. “I truly believe this team has improved every single week during this winning streak,” Bennett said of the Wolfpack. “Hopefully that sets us up for a good playoff run.” Amidst the melee of offense and defense, Glacier High School’s Todd Ogden gets a foot over the goal line to score early in the fourth quarter of the Wolfpack’s 33-7 win over Helena Capital on Oct. 18 in Kalispell. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beaconlast_img

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