Is it time for AA football to make some changes?

The Class AA football landscape has long been discussed, and nothing has really changed.

Currently — and for the foreseeable future — there are 14 teams that each play 10 regular-season games. All of those games are conference games to determine the eight playoff teams.

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Two Strong

When I first saw Tre’von Strong play a sport, it was a high school playoff basketball game. A cross town rivalry steeped in tradition and filled with the prospect of awesome. Tre’von played with his hair flying traversing the court as if something was chasing him. Moving the ball in and out of traffic like a race car driver and pushing to the basket over and over again. Leaping into the air with such an ease and grace it looked almost otherworldly. He was too strong that night for the opposing team. Now I know, what he really is, two strong.

Tre’von said his first sports memory was playing YMCA soccer at the age of 5 or 6. It was more of just running around kicking the ball around with friends. Not a whole lot of organization, but it still stood out in his mind as his first memory of an “organized” sport. To him it was just fun with friends. To his mother Brandie it was this same memory of watching these little bobble heads run around the field so young having such fun, completely unorganized but so very cute to watch.

Tre’von told me that one of the hardest things he has had to face so far is growing up without a father. His grandfather was there for him and his uncles who helped him grow. But it was his mother Brandie who was always there for him to support him in everything he did and that it is her support that has gotten him to where he is today. He also shared a little bit of how hard it was to grow up as a black man in Billings, Montana, which when he was younger had a very, very small black population. In elementary school, there were kids who were uneducated in regards to different races and they would ask him about his color and his race. In middle school, he thought that kids would not make it such a big issue but there were a few who did. Tre’von said he did not think about it much because he did not want it to get under his skin and ruin things.

Tre’von’s mother Brandie relates that the hardest things for her have been her illness as a high-risk medical patient. She shares how she nearly lost her life and how even having Tre’von was extremely hard on her body with her illness and she almost lost her life at that time as well. Brandy also relates how difficult it was raising Tre’von as a single mother and as a black man in Montana facing prejudice and the obstacles that come from both of those things. She relates that the racial discrimination very early on for Tre’von was handled very well by the coach who took a child out of a game and then talked to the child’s parents and also to her alone and explained what had happened and what he was going to do about it. In middle school, a kid wanted to use the N word about Tre’von but his friends stood up for him and they were able to sort that out together. In high school, she said he has not experienced this kind of racism.

Tre’von said that his mother’s support has meant everything to him. She has been there for everything. When he was sick, tired, and just plain sick and tired. Through all the sports and all of his games. Out in the freezing cold, she would still be filming. Whenever he has needed someone, she was there for him. With everything she has gone through as a single mom and with her medical issues that she has always been there for him and that he appreciates so much everything she has done for him through the years.


Brandie relates that there were times when she was so sick that she would need to be away in Denver to get treatment for a month or for weeks at a time. She said that her family would rally around and take care of him and that there was a strong foundation and nucleus. But for the most part, she has done all of it by herself. Times when she would be very sick and would force herself out of bed to make sure he was where he needed to be or to go and support him at games, she would do whatever she could to be there for him.

Tre’von is about to embark on his senior year of high school and I asked him to share what his hopes were for this upcoming year. He said his first and main goal is just to graduate and be finished with high school. He plans to compete in football, basketball, and track again this year and he wants to be the best he can be in all three. Tre’von said his ultimate goal is to win a state championship in all three sports and said that even if the teams do not win state championships in all three sports, he wants to make it memorable, go out with no regrets, have fun with his friends this one last time before we become adults and go out into the real world.

Tre’von hopes to attend a D1 university on a football scholarship. He said he is looking at D1 colleges because you have a chance to go further on in sports when you attend one of those colleges and you also get a first rate education. He wants to make those four years the best he can possibly make them. Tre’von wants to pursue a degree in sports medicine saying that he wants to be in sports all his life, “it’s all I know and all I have grown up with.” He said he chose football over basketball and track for college because his family is very football oriented and that he likes football because of the hitting and that it is more physically challenging playing out in all kinds of weather and going up against people who are bigger and faster. He also said that he thinks football crowds are more energetic with the pep bands and all the energy they pour onto the field. He said, “Football is what I wanted to do always. I started in the back yard and then when I was about nine I started to play Little Guy Football.” Brandie relates that she once asked him if he wanted to play flag football before he was old enough for Little Guy and Tre’von was not interested. He wanted to wait until he could play tackle football.

Brandie said about Tre’von’s last year, “I hope for success, however he defines it. Personal success, academic success, sports success. State championships in football and basketball would be great for him and to place first in triple jump this year. A personal record in all three sports for him even if they do not win state championships or place first in track, for him to set personal records for himself. I hope for him to get a scholarship in football to a D1 college. Mostly though, I want success however he defines it. Whatever makes him feel successful, however he defines it.”

Tre’von shared his most memorable moment in sports so far as the playoff game with Senior High vs Skyview for basketball. He said, “The team gets to the school an hour beforehand and when we get there, kids were already in the front lobby to get seats. Coach Hill was talking to us giving our pregame speech and I hear the pep band and our students along with their students and all the parents. I know that anything could happen and it was not going to be easy. We wanted to win really badly. The crowd the loudest game at the varsity level I had ever heard. It was crazy!”

His mother shares that it was his entire junior year that was her best memory so far. She said, “I told him and I knew as a mom that it was going to be his breakout year. The start was a little slow, but as it went on and he became more of a young man and all the hard work he did beforehand was paying off. He just excelled and succeeded in everything he wanted to do. As a mom, that was just so cool to watch.”

As a top athlete in three sports, football, basketball, and track, there are a lot of things for people to remember about him. I asked Tre’von what he wanted people to remember about him and he said, “I want them to remember that I was a good person who always thought of everybody as equal to me. No matter how talented or popular that I thought of myself just the same as everyone else. I want them to remember that I was someone who wanted to influence kids to do the right thing and to work hard to become what you want to be. I want them to remember me as a good role model for the next generation and that as I was a good influence on younger kids. One of my best friends’ moms is a teacher in elementary school and we volunteer for their field day and the kids see us and get to play with us. I help work a basketball camp for K-6th graders where I get to make personal connections with the kids and teach them how much more involved it is the higher the level.” In regards to sports Tre’von had only this to say about how he wanted to be remembered, “I want them to think of me as an impact player who was dominant and that when they tell stories one day they remember playing me.”

Brandie said that she wanted people to remember that Tre’von is a great athlete, but that he is an even greater man. He is thoughtful, kind, and loving. She wants them to know he is sensitive and respectful. That he has manners. To remember that he is giving and if you need him he will be there, especially for his friends, which is something she greatly admires. She wants people to remember that he does not look down on others. That he is full of confidence and is secure in himself. That he has great integrity and is a convicted young lad and a hard worker. As she speaks, you can hear the strength in her voice and watching her son listen to her, you can see how she has transferred that strength into him. She who has been there for everything has given him everything he needs to be strong.

As we wrap up the interview, I ask if there is anything else they would like to share. Brandie shares the story of the father figure who has stepped up and has been a true blessing in their lives. In 2001, Brandy took Tre’von to watch the local Indoor Football League team play. He wanted to go down on the field for the championship game and he worked his way over to the team bench and started talking to the coach and befriended the coach. Chris was there playing and just happened to befriend him and that bond just took off. Tre’von became the water boy and was the water boy from that start through the duration of the team in 2010. That friendship grew and it spiraled and turned into a real father and son relationship and they are bonded as closely as any father and son could be. He supports Tre’von in so many ways. He is always there for him and this relationship means so much to Tre’von, to both of them. As she speaks, she begins to cry and Tre’von begins to cry as the meaning of this bond overwhelms them both.

Happy tears and in them I can see the struggles and the hardships and I see the strength as mother and son look at each other. In this moment, I realize that I now know what he really is, what they really are, two strong.

*LA Nike Results click here Tre’von recorded a score of  87.66

Deborah Horton is a freelance writer who enjoys watching all sports. She is also a published novelist and poet and is currently seeking a Master’s degree in counseling. You can find links to more of Deborah’s work at

Rocky Mountain

THE ARMS RACE: Stability, expansion keys to Frontier’s increased balance

HELENA — For the first decade of the 21st century, it seemed like the football programs in the Frontier Conference were all chasing Carroll College. As the second decade of the century creeps along, the followers are all of a sudden gaining ground on the leader.The Fighting Saints won four straight national titles between 2002 and 2005 and six national titles in the first decade since the turn of the millennium. Last season, Carroll saw its streak of 12 straight Frontier titles snapped and missed the national playoffs for the first time since Y2K.

This season, the Frontier saw seven of its eight members ranked in the top 25 of the NAIA at one point or another. Defending league champion Montana Tech started the season at No. 7, but stumbled to a 3-7 record due largely to star quarterback Nick Baker leaving the program. Montana Western and Montana State Northern briefly made cameos in the top 25. Eastern Oregon finished the season as No. 25. Southern Oregon, the co-defending league champs with Tech, received votes in the final regular-season poll.Rocky Mountain College finished at No. 10, it’s highest ranking in quite some time. The Bears made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 before losing in the first round.

“It’s become an arms race,” said Montana Tech second-year head coach Chuck Morrell, the 2012 Frontier Coach of the Year. “Everyone understands that if you are going to compete on a week to week basis and it really doesn’t matter what everyone’s records are, you are going to have to have guys. You are going to have to have guys who are borderline Big Sky Conference guys in your program to win football games.”The Saints remain the flag bearers. Carroll finished No. 3 in the country after a 34-27 overtime loss to the University of Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., in the semifinals of the NAIA national playoffs. The standard set by the Saints is one the rest of the league has emulated in trying to close the gap.

“We’ve all had to get better because of the standard set, seriously, since 2000 by Carroll,” MSU-Northern 10th-year head coach Mark Samson said. “Carroll College has been so good for so long, we’ve all had to get better recruits just to compete.”“Everyone has had to raise their levels in every aspect,” added Rocky Mountain sixth-year head coach Brian Armstrong, the 2013 Frontier Coach of the Year. “Carroll’s success has had as much to do with that as anything.”

Dickinson State joined the Frontier in 2011. Southern and Eastern Oregon each joined the league before last season. The geographic expansion of the league has had an influence on each program’s roster.“Having eight or nine teams in the league changes things,” Samson said. “Most of the kids on Northern’s team when I first got here (in 2004) were all from Montana. The regional recruiting wasn’t happening. Now I look at where we’ve gotten kids from. You have to go out there and find them. There’s so many players out there. It’s just hard to convince them to come to Montana because it’s colder than hell and there’s snow on the ground.”

Southern Oregon is located in Ashland, Oregon, about four hours south of Portland and an hour north of California on the I-5 Corridor. Eastern Oregon is located in La Grande, about halfway between Portland and Boise, Idaho on I-84.“When you add teams like Southern and Eastern Oregon into the league, they were bound to be very competitive,” Samson said. “Where they are located, they are a long ways away from all of us but they are smack in the middle of a great recruiting area. They get a lot of transfer kids, a lot of JC, a lot of kids that drop down from NCAA schools. They are in a great recruiting area for the West Coast.” 

Ashland and La Grande are far cries from rural Montana Frontier towns like Havre and Dillon. Butte seems like a metropolis compared to where the Bulldogs reside in Southwest Montana. Samson and his staff are constantly battling the elements in recruiting kids to Havre, one of the nation’s coldest communities.Mike Van Diest, the architect of Carroll’s unrivaled run of success, attributes the balance and parity of the league to stability despite the fact that some of the schools are off the beaten path.“There’s a lot of love and loyalty with these coaches,” Van Diest said. “They are in places they want to be. In the coaching game, some jobs are stepping stones. Some people see these jobs as that, they coach here at this level and they go on to the next level. You have quality coaches who are not doing this as a hobby. The conference isn’t just a stopping point anymore. It’s a destination.”

Colter Nuanez is a freelance journalist living in Southwest Montana. He’s the senior writer for Bobcat Beat (, a website covering Montana State athletics, and his writing can be found at He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat.




Treasure State’s top programs all share one thing in common: dedication

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 (, a website covering Montana State athletics, and his writing can be found at He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat. 


PRIDE OF A CHAMPION: Johnson has built unwavering tradition at CMR

GREAT FALLS — As July dwindles into August each summer, a similar scene plays out on the north side of Great Falls. As the Electric City sun beats down, young men dressed in green and gold test their fortitude and try to live up to the name of the field that makes them bleed.The glitz and glamour that permeates football today is nowhere to be found. Pride Field is hard, dusty and brutal. Field turf and spread offenses seem a world away when you’re behind Great Falls C.M. Russell High School.

Ryan Bagley remembers the first time he was sent to the desert.

The slick wide receiver who would go on to catch 152 passes as a Montana Grizzly came to Jack Johnson’s fall camp from his ranch home in Dutton as a prep sophomore in 2001. Bagley expected pass-catching drills. What he and the other skill position players got was a trip to one of the driest surface in Central.Across the track from Pride Field, an arid place itself, is a shriveling patch where toughness is tested. Johnson, the legendary face of Great Falls, sends all his players to the desert to see what they are made of.“We were mentally strong because of the desert along side Pride Field. Every training camp, Coach J made us pretty boy quarterbacks and receivers go roll around in the desert and do defensive line drills in August heat,” Bagley remembered. “The thing we dreaded the most was the desert.”

Johnson took over when CMR first opened in 1972. Over the past 41 years, he’s built a program with unprecedented success in the Treasure State. The Rustlers are consistently one of the state’s toughest and most successful teams. Johnson is 339-111 during his tenure at CMR. The Rustlers have won 13 state titles — second-most in Montana history — and have advanced to the state title game a whopping 19 times.Go to a game on a Friday night in Great Falls at Memorial Stadium. When it’s the Rustlers at home, you can be sure the stands will be bursting with green and gold. The faces and names suited up on the Memorial sidelines change, but consistent greatness seems to never waver under Johnson’s watch.

“Tradition starts with leadership, and that obviously starts with Jack Johnson,” said Austin Mullins, the 2004 Class AA Defensive Player of the Year and a standout on CMR’s state title team that fall. “In order for there to be traditions, people have to buy into that traditions. By winning games and championships, Coach Johnson has made it easy for players, students and fans to buy into the tradition. The proof is there and winning makes it easy to have strong traditions. But along the lines of leadership, his assistant coaches – typically all former CMR players – can carry on that tradition and pass it on to incoming players. They’ve witnessed the wins and the championships. They understand the pride, history and tradition that comes with being a CMR Rustler football player.”This season, Johnson and his staff have had to dig deep to ensure CMR strives to maintain its standards of success. The Rustlers entered the 2013 season with high hopes. The team lost in the state semifinals on a stuffed two-point conversion to Butte High last fall. The Rustlers returned a slew of talent, including University of Montana commit Alex Thomas at defensive end and stud quarterback Jayse McLean, a Division I baseball prospect who missed his junior year with an injury.

The injury bug bit right away. Versatile wide receiver/linebacker Eric Dawson, veteran linemen Jimmy Grinde and several other Rustlers got hurt early. In CMR’s season-opener against Missoula Sentinel, the Rustlers built a 21-7 lead, only to see the Spartans storm back for a 49-28 victory. The losing streak stretched to four games when the Rustlers fell to Helena Capital, 24-0. It looked like CMR might be left on the outside looking in, a rare occasion for a team that’s made the Class AA final four its home for the better part of five decades. But the instilled success and the desire to win couldn’t be smothered. The Rustlers got healthy and got on a roll. Seven straight wins and the Rustlers were all of a sudden in the semifinals once again.

“I didn’t think we were going to ever turn it around,” Johnson laughed. “We were missing four or five starters each time out we stepped out there. I’ve never had a year quite like that, but we are getting healthy now and we are playing better. It’s a good group of kids, very bright and dedicated and I just told them that we would be a good football team once we got healthy. We just had to have confidence in ourselves and the system. They’ve been good. I don’t think we ever thought we were out of it.”CMR stayed the course and was a win away from a 20th state title game appearance.“The program has such a strong tradition simply because of Coach

Johnson. Coach built his program around winning, that’s what he does, that’s what CMR football does,” Thomas said. “Coach always strives for perfection, which is a big part of our tradition. Coach instills in us to do something right the first and to always work hard no matter what the task at hand is.” It’s a tried and true formula to Johnson’s success. The Rustlers never try to trick people. They simply try to out-execute opponents on both sides of the football. And Johnson never lets his players stop believing in themselves. No matter how successful you are — and Johnson has coached some of Montana’s best from Griz legend Dave Dickenson to first-round draft pick Ryan Leaf — the legendary head coach always finds ways to challenge his pupils. Entering the 2004 season, the Rustlers knew they had a chance to be special. Mullins was a returning first-team all-state pick at middle linebacker. Jeff Hansen was a top-tier Division I prospect on the offensive line. Drew Savage figured to be one of the state’s most explosive running backs.

But CMR sputtered to a 1-1 start thanks to the lackluster play of its offense and a defense playing without desire. Johnson called Mullins into his office and had a “come to Jesus” meeting with his star captain.“I was already a 1st-team All-State player the year before. I had several colleges recruiting me and all expectations of having an even better senior season. Sometimearound week 3 of the season, Coach Johnson had to sit me down and he really let me have it because I had played rather poorly in the first two games,” said Mullins, who went on to start at defensive tackle for the Montana Grizzlies. “I was playing slow, thinking too much, and it was going to at some point maybe meaning the difference between winning and losing a game. He even mentioned benching me if my playing didn’t improve. That is something I’ll always take with me. I have to be responsible for my actions and take accountability on how they affect others.”Two pillars under Johnson have been hard-hitting defenses and a propensity to run the football. This season has been no different. Sophomore Andrew Grinde has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight starts at tailback.

“We like to run the ball and we are going to do that, then try to mix it up,” Johnson said. “We haven’t changed much. We stay up with some of the trends in football like shotgun and single-back and zone blitzing and mixing things up. But we rely on the fundamentals. It doesn’t matter what you run as long as you block and tackle. We stress that and it’s worked well for that. It’s a contact sport and whoever is physically most aggressive will come out on top.”CMR is made up of a melting pot of kids. Some live in town. Some come from rural backgrounds. Some are from country club families. Others have Native America roots. Others are children of families who live on Malmstrom Air Force Base. The thing they all share is a blue-collar work ethic and dedication in a common goal.

“It’s that the Montana cowboy mentality of you get up early, get in the weight room, get your studies done, get in the film room, and get topractice and you do it all right and at 100% or it’s not worth doing,” Mullins said. “One word that is always associated with CMR football is pride. The practice field is even named Pride Field. I think the football program just has a sense that there can be no greater pride than having the ability to line up and out-execute the person across from you. No tricks, no secrets. I remember lining up and even telling the other team what we were about to run. It’s not cockiness. It’s having the pride of being a CMR football player and understanding the history associated with having that R on your helmet and not wanting to let the ones that came before you down.”

Bagley remembers his first varsity start under Johnson against Missoula Hellgate. He was nervous. He remembers catching a swing pass right in front of the CMR sideline. He slipped on the muddy Missoula County Public Stadium field and got smacked right in front of all the coaches. He fumbled the ball and it bounced out of bounds. “I wasn’t too worried about it until I came off to the sideline and Coach Johnson was right there,” Bagleys said. “He didn’t yell or get mad. He simply said, ‘If you’re not going to hold onto the ball, go back to Dutton.’”

The discipline and standards of success Johnson has established at CMR resonate throughout the blue-collar community. Yet for all the accolades and acknowledgement of his coaching prowess, Johnson chooses to deflect praise.“I think a lot of it is blind luck,” Johnson laughed. “I think my role in this is overrated. Year in and year out, this is my 41st year hear and most every year, we’ve had really good players.” The simple system has bread spectacular players. Mullins remembers growing up idolizing Dickenson and Leaf and defensive stud Mike Murphy. The Rustlers were like heroes to small Great Falls kids. You wanted to grow up and play for Johnson under the lights of Memorial.

“The tradition, that never dies,” Johnson said. “Growing up here, you think of going to CMR. A lot of kids are expecting to play for us, go to the playoffs and try to win a state championship. They want to get on the Hall of Fame. It’s something that really perpetuates itself. Once we got that rolling, we’ve been able to continue the tradition. Our goal is to always been the playoffs and win the championship. That hasn’t changed.”


Colter Nuanez is a freelance journalist living in Southwest Montana. He’s the senior writer for Bobcat Beat (, a website covering Montana State athletics. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat.



Treasure State Prep Best 2013

Most Outstanding Player — Will Dissly, Bozeman, Tight end/defensive end — All Dissly did was dominate both sides of the line of scrimmage for three straight seasons for the Hawks. As a senior, Dissly caught 54 passes for 917 yards and 12 touchdowns as a tight end and wracked up 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks as a defensive end. He had an unbelievable 32 quarterback hurries and was the most disruptive defensive force in the state. The Class AA Co-Defensive MVP and the 2013 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year is headed to Boise State to play on the defensive line.

Offensive Player of the Year — Dallas Cook, Butte, quarterback — The Bulldogs didn’t have the dream season some expected after Cook led Butte to the 2012 state title. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort from the southpaw senior. Cook broke eight Montana All-Class records this season. As a senior, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder threw for 4,145 yards and 40 touchdowns and rushed for 866 yards and 16 touchdowns during Butte’s 6-5 campaign. For his career, Cook had state records of 99 total touchdowns and accounted for 604 points. He had 56 touchdowns and 338 points during his senior season alone. His 5,011 yards of total offense in 2013 set a state record, as did his 456.4 yards of total offence per game. He threw for 376.8 yards per outing, completed 296 passes and tossed 76 career touchdown passes. In just two seasons as a starter, he threw for 8,281 yards, the second-most in the history of the state of Montana.

Defensive Player of the Year — Grant Collins, Bozeman, linebacker — Over the past half-dozen years, Bozeman has had some prolific defensive players, from current Montana Griz captain linebacker Brock Coyle to Boise State commit defensive end Will Dissly. None has been more productive than Collins. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound middle linebacker set Bozeman’s all-time defensive points record with 503 during the Hawks’ 2013 state title run. His point total was 71 better than former record holder Nate Johnson. Last fall, Collins had 112 solo tackles and 57 assists for an eye-popping 169 total tackles. The rangy athlete with superb sideline-to-sideline speed had 25 tackles for loss, five sacks, four interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, seven quarterback hurries and he scored twice.

 Jack Johnson Coach of the Year Award — Rick Nordahl, Dillon — Nordahl took over for Southwestern Montana legend Terry Thomas. Thomas led Dillon to five state titles and 17 playoff appearances in his 26 seasons. In his first season, Nordal lead the Beavers to an 11-0 record capped by a 31-14 win over defending state champion Billings Central in the State A championship game.



Quarterback — Dallas Cook, Butte 

Running back — Holden Ryan, Billings Central

Fullback — Alex Picicci, Billings Skyview

Offensive line — Zach Dennehy, Kalispell Glacier

Jared Geer, Missoula Loyola

Jack Hape, Bozeman

Donovan Hucke, Dillon

Derek Wham, Ennis

Ben D’Alton, Billings Central

Kordell Cummings, Hardin

Tight End — Will Dissly, Bozeman

Troy Scott, Dillon

Wide receiver — Dalton Daum, Butte

Connor Sullivan, Ennis

Ty Morgan, Columbia Falls

Returner — Wyatt David, Bozeman


End — Will Dissly, Bozeman

Brendan Windauer, Kalispell Glacier

Tackle — Tucker Yates, Colstrip

Trevor Hopf, Billings Skyview

Linebacker — Grant Collins, Bozeman

Carson King, Dillon

Todd Ogden, Kalispell Glacier

Defensive back — Wyatt David, Bozeman

Evan Epperly, Kalispell Glacier

Matt McHugh, Missoula Loyola

Mick Paffhausen, Dillon

Sean Foley, Whitefish

Colter Nuanez is a freelance journalist living in Southwest Montana. He’s the senior writer for Bobcat Beat (, a website covering Montana State athletics. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat.