As Missoula Loyola prepared to make the first run at back-to-back state crowns by a Garden City team in nearly 60 years, the Rams decided it was time for a change.Loyola ripped off 12 straight wins in 2012 to earn the school’s first state title in more than a century of competing on the gridiron. The Rams entered 2013 as one of Class B’s favorites again, but many wondered how they would replace the Division I duo of quarterback Bo Hughes and wide receiver Josh Janssen. Hughes is now a freshman safety at Montana State. Janssen is a freshman receiver for the Montana Grizzlies.
“Coming into this year, I was set on doing the same things I’d done the past six years, but the seniors came to me in mass,” said Loyola seventh-year head coach Dan Weber. “They all wanted to do things differently. I thought about it for a day and went back to them and told them to do whatever they wanted to do to leave their mark.“A fair number of those boys played on that team last year that won the first one in Malta. They got together early in December and they decided they wanted to have things a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past. We ended up going to a different camp, had different travel shirts, just a different identity. It helped set those kids apart from the year before and it helped them make their own mark.”
The 2013 Rams certainly left their own mark. Loyola capped its 11-0 season with a 30-13 win over previously unbeaten Baker in Eastern Montana to become the first Missoula team to win back-to-back football titles since Missoula County Public High School did it between 1943 and 1946.The way the Rams did it may have differed between 2012 and 2013, but the work ethic that propelled Loyola to success didn’t waver.Loyola has a distinct advantage as a private school in a city of 80,000 compared to other Class B teams like Baker; the Spartans draw from a population base of less than 2,000. Still, Loyola didn’t capture a state football title in more than a century.
Enter former Montana Grizzlies tight end Steven Pfahler. The Frenchtown native was a legendary workout warrior during his time at UM and his brief stint in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. In 2011, Pfahler started Pfahler Sports Specific, a personal training brand tailored toward working with prep athletes. The Rams are a primary part of his clientele. That, coupled with a new weight room, has catapulted Loyola to the forefront of Class B.“A large part of it is the off-season training program that we run with our kids,” Weber said. “I started that when I got hired here seven years ago. Then we got our weight room redone. Now we have Steven Pfahler who trains a ton of our kids in the off-season. It’s amazing the strength, the speed, the quickness these guys have gained,” Weber said. “That comes from the off-season training. We’ve been really fortunate to have Steve.”
When Troy Purcell first arrived in Bozeman from Havre, the Hawk football program was a mess. The city’s eight middle schools had no continuity in feeding the lone high school in town. During his first year in the Gallatin Valley in 2004, the senior prank was to tear down the goal posts at Van Winkle Stadium.“There was no pride here, no school spirit. It made no sense,” Purcell said. “I was embarrassed watching that.”Despite having the second-highest enrollment behind Billings West in the state, Bozeman hadn’t won a state title since 1917 when Purcell first took the job.
“There’s always been talent here,” Purcell said. “Shoot, Corey Widmer and Shane Collins played here and won four games in their high school careers. They both played in the NFL. There ain’t very many times kids from Montana played in the NFL. There’s always been talent here. We just had to make it grow.”Purcell went to work. When he first arrived, he said about 12 kids were in the weight room on a consistent basis. Now, as many as 60 football players can be found lifting weights during the off-season in the Bozeman High weight room. Purcell has instilled a culture that football does not end in November and begin in August. It’s a year-round endeavor.
“The program has come a long ways since Coach Purcell got here,” said Bozeman senior quarterback Will Weyer, a University of Montana commit. “When he got here, the program wasn’t the best. But it’s a lot more organized and guys are a lot more committed in the off-season. He’s done a bunch of cool things too with the new jerseys and the flag. It brings energy to this team.”The evolution of the program is apparent. In 2010, Bozeman snapped its dry spell with its first state title 93 years. In 2012, Bozeman lost in the title game to Butte on a last-second field goal. The loss planted a seed for 2013, a season that saw the Hawks pulverize the rest of the state in cruising to a 13-0 record and a second state title in four years.“That pride and tradition is at Bozeman now,” Weyer said. “All the things we’ve done, not just this year, but since Coach Purcell has been here, we are proud of that.”
The last-second field goal in 2012 that proved to be the spark for Bozeman’s title run this fall also helped affirm Butte High as one of the state’s top programs. The 2012 state title was the first by the Bulldogs in more than two decades.“Growing up, I remember asking my mom in third or fourth grade if Butte High had always been this bad because that’s all I knew,” said Butte High offensive line coach and former MSU offensive lineman Casey Dennehy. “Since Coach (Arie) Grey has been here, he’s changed the program. There’s more energy and enthusiasm all around town.” Grey, a former Bobcat wide receiver and a Deer Lodge native, took the reigns for the Bulldogs in 2008. He installed an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that has been one of the state’s most prolific the last few years. Like the other top programs in the state, though, the foundation for success is built in the weight room, Grey said.
“One of the biggest things that started when I got here is we became a 12-months a year operation,” Grey said. “The Monday after our last game, we are in the weight room. We are going to lift five days a week, run, get kids involved with basketball, wrestling, hockey, track, tennis, baseball, everything. In the summer, you go to camps and have fun. We had 156 workouts between the state championship last year and Day 1 of football this year. They buy into it and to be successful, you have to put the time and effort in.”
As recently as a decade ago, Billings Senior was the only team in Class AA operating its offense primarily out of the shotgun. Now it seems almost every team runs some variation of the spread.Up in the Flathead Valley, Grady Bennett seemed to have an ideal situation. The former Montana quarterback was the head coach at Flathead High School, his alma mater and the biggest high school in the state. The Braves were on the fore-front of modernizing offenses in Montana with Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiller at the helm.In 2006, Glacier High opened its doors and Bennett moved to the new school because of the proximity to his home. The majority of Bennett’s players his first two years were underclassmen. He has just six seniors on his initial squad. The Wolfpack limped their way to just two wins in its first two seasons. But Bennett and his staff wouldn’t be discouraged.
In 2013, Glacier made the semifinals for the third straight season and qualified for the first state title game in school history.“We had a blueprint in place that we believed in,” said Bennett, whose team fell in Bozeman 24-14 to the Hawks. “Those first two years, it was tough. After 0-10 and 2-8, you wonder if it will ever happen. It was still hard. Then you stay with it, they keep working, learning the system and the standard of excellence you set. If you expect things out of kids, you’ll get it. If you tolerate things, you’ll get that too. We kept pushing the standards, expecting excellence and keep giving kids a program they are proud to be a part of. Here we are, finally breaking through. I’m really proud of everyone involved building this program.”
When Bennett was a Brave, he dreamed of growing up to be like Scott Vannon, the great Montana Grizzly basketball player. He didn’t see football in his future.“Thankfully, I had really good coaches who talked me into it and kept saying I needed to do it,” Bennett said. “I ended up my senior year getting all football scholarship offers and none for basketball.“I’m a huge proponent of my guys playing multiple sports. Guys who just go to the weight room, you are getting bigger and stronger, but you are missing out on those situations on a Saturday night where you have to make a decision with the ball in your hands.”
Chuck Morrell has only been the head coach at Montana Tech for two seasons, but he’s spent much of the past 15 years recruiting the rural prep landscape of Montana and South Dakota. The 2012 Frontier Conference Coach of the Year spent more than a decade at NAIA power Sioux Falls University. He’s said the implementation of modern offenses has made players from the region more college ready.“As far as understanding offensive schemes, they are ready,” Morrell said. “They are very in-tuned with the spread. Across the state right now, especially in the AAs, but even into A, there are programs running college oriented type of programs. It’s no more Wing-T, full-house, three yards and a cloud of dust. There’s a lot of different structured passing games. There’s receivers coming out of Montana that are understanding route progressions. There’s quarterbacks who know how to read coverages. That’s something that has really changed.”
Colter Nuanez is a freelance journalist living in Southwest Montana. He’s the senior writer for Bobcat Beat (bobcatnation.com), a website covering Montana State athletics, and his writing can be found at hometownpridecamps.com. He can be reached at BobcatBeat56@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat.