By Bruce Sayler
The important statistic at this point for the East-West Shrine Game players is 38-32.
The numerals signify the wins count in the series, the 71st installment of which will be played on Saturday in Billings. The first-time host site will be Herb Klindt Field on the Rocky Mountain College campus and kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. KBOW (550 AM, 101.5 FM or online) of Butte will provide radio coverage.
The game will also be broadcast statewide on the CW.
The East is on the upside of the series with the 38 wins, but the West has been whittling at the deficit in recent times. The West squad has been practicing at Montana Tech this week with aims to take even more off of the imbalance.
“We’ve had a great time here,” smiling West head coach Tony Arntson, also the head coach of Helena High, said Thursday afternoon following light drills held in sizzling temperatures of 90-plus — probably plus-plus on the reflective artificial turf of Bob Green Field.
“It’s a really, really great group of good guys and kids,” Arntson continued. “They’ve come in here, all been standouts and they’ve included everybody in everything we’ve been doing up here. The chemistry has been awesome.”
Arntson, personally, is appearing in his eighth Shrine Game, all as a head coach or assistant. His head coaching record in the classic is 1-1.
Getting to the up side, as can be expected, will be a challenge. As good as the West players have looked in run-throughs this week, a squad of similarly gifted football players will be donning East jerseys on Saturday. The East has been practicing in Billings under the guidance of Billings Senior head coach Chris Murdock.
The game benefits the Shrine Children’s Hospital in Spokane and sent it a check of more than $100,000 from proceeds of last year’s game, which was held in Butte. Next year’s contest will be in Great Falls before coming back to Butte in 2019.
The West defense is in the hands of Dillon head coach Rick Nordahl and is faced with a major chore.
“Defensively, we have to contain Nate Dick,” Arntson said of the standout Billings Senior quarterback, who will take his abilities to the University of Montana following Saturday night’s game leading the East offense. “We have to know where he’s at all the time and not give up the big plays to him.”
Even when Dick, the reigning Montana Gatorade Player of the Year, isn’t at QB, the East offense will be in capable hands. Bozeman QB Callalhan O’Reilly shares the position and will join the Montana State program in the fall.
“We know O’Reilly can flip it around,” Arntson said of the QB’s passing ability. “We need to be sound. We can’t focus on one player or two. They’re all good players.”
A couple of Class A stars will direct the West offense with Montana Grizzly-bound Tanner Wilson of Polson sharing the role with Dakota Bridwell, who set passing records while at Columbia Falls and will continue his career at Montana Western.
The offensive plot for the West is similar to its defense in that it wants to limit what Dick can do. Therefore, the West wants to control the football and keep the East’s star quarterbacks on the sidelines as much as possible.
“As usual, we’ll want to set up our running game so we can get to our passing game,” Arntson said.
Still, Arntson seems to view almost a stalemate and figures the game could very well come down to the quality of play on special teams.
“We have a lot of small-school guys and those guys are used to being on the field all the time,” the coach said. “They don’t leave the field. Special teams will be key. Special teams can win and control a game.
“We can’t give up big plays on special teams, and we need to work on getting big plays on special teams.”
Butte will be represented by five players on the West squad with Butte Central running back Blake Burton, cornerback Sam Johnston and receiver Nate McGree joined by Butte High receiver Kiley Caprara and safety Bryce Gallagher.
The West roster also includes Southwest Montanans in Dillon receiver Gabe Hupp, linebacker R.J. Fitzgerald, center Todd Nordahl, defensive lineman Cordell McGinley and defensive end Eric James; Whitehall cornerback Braden Larsen and tight end Andrew Simon; Ennis defensive lineman Ty Morgan and Twin Bridges tight end Cooper Christensen. Dillon defensive back Troy Andersen was a late scratch just minutes before camp started due to a nagging foot injury incurred near the end of track season and aggravated while participating in the Badlands Bowl last month.
Both teams will have good size, as can be expected. The West roster is topped out by 6-foot-6, 285-pound Tyler Packer out of Notre Dame High School in Calgary. Each side will have a Canadian player compete in the game. The next-tallest West players are three that hit 6-5 — Christensen, who weighs 235; Morgan, who packs 225; and the 235-pound McKenzie Holt of Thompson Falls.
Caprara, at 5-10, 150, is the lightest.
Fitzgerald, Kalispell Glacier linebacker Patrick O’Connell, Helena Capital linebacker Marcus Welnel and Helena High running back Ryan Arntson (son of the coach) are the West captains.
The East running game is likely to be headed by Drew Keireleber of Billings Skyview, Shawn Schaerferkoetter of Wibaux and Hayden Van Winkle of Belgrade figure to spark the receiving corps. The East will have a big offensive line, and a defense that features stars like Luke Poetzl of Billings Senior, Austin Kirchner of Great Falls C.M. Russell, Peyton Hanser of Billings Central and Jemal Williams of Belgrade, among others.
Both sides are galaxies of stars.
Coach Arntson is being assisted by Nordahl and recent Polson head coach Scott Wilson, both of whom have sons on the West team — center Todd Nordahl and quarterback Tanner Wilson. Another Nordahl son, Brett, is the head coach at Twin Bridges and an assistant on the West staff. Manny Garza of Helena High and Joe McElroy of Missoula round out the coaching staff.