By Bruce Sayler
Game time is 7 p.m. on Friday in Belgrade as Butte Central will launch its 2016 high school football season with a good core of experienced veterans backed by a promising group of newcomers.
The Maroons will be looking to improve on what was a good effort of last year when they reached the quarterfinals of the state Class A playoffs. They finished 2015 with a 7-4 overall record and a second-place spot in the Southwestern A Conference standings. The BC team was 3-1 in league play.
The game at Belgrade will be a non-conference clash. The Panthers went 3-6 last year, were second in the Central A standings at 3-1 and bowed out of the state Class A playoffs in the first round.
“The first game is always a complete mystery,” 28th-year Butte Central head coach Don Peoples Jr. said. “We’re not sure what we have for a team yet, and there’s no way to predict what our opponent will have. That makes the first game fun, too.”
Quarterback Tanner Kump is back for Butte Central after a strong junior season in the starting role. Kump has sprinter’s speed and an accurate passing arm. He was ninth in Class A in passing and third in total offense, making him of the top returnees at the position. He checks in at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds.
He has good, experienced upperclassman returnees around him. The line features three who have played a lot. The bunch is led by 5-11, 285-pound senior Ryan Richards, who is a fourth-year starter. The offensive line also has back 6-1, 210-pound senior Archie Petritz and 5-8, 180-pound junior Dylan Shea. They both began last season as backups, but took over starting spots when injuries to frontliners occurred and put forth good seasons. Another senior, 6-0, 250-pound Paul Thomas LaFleur missed last year with a knee injury, but is back to play his last season. Peoples said LaFleur will be held out of the opener after “tweaking the knee” earlier in preseason practice.
Also contending for starts and time on the OL are 6-3, 275-pound junior Zeb Antonioli, 6-1, 275-pound junior Shane Callahan, 5-10, 6-2, 230-pound junior Saxon Walton, 235-pound sophomore Seth Gardner and 6-3, 235-pound freshman Aaron Richards, brother of Ryan.
Drawing the starts on Friday are Shea at center, Ryan Richards and Antonioli at the guards, and Petritz and Walton at the tackles.
Senior Nate McGree is the leading receiver back. He had 27 catches last year and has now grown to 6-2, 215 pounds. He is being eased back into action after recovering from a hip injury suffered last spring while competing in track. Senior Sam Johnston is another returning starter. The 6-1, 165-pounder has good hands and made several good, clutch catches last year.
Among the others looking to see time are 6-0, 180-pound senior Chay Bouchee, 5-7, 150-pound sophomore Clay Fisher, 6-0, 170-pound junior Allen Boyle, 5-8, 150-pound senior Ryan Ashby, 5-8, 150-pound senior Jared Schneider, 5-11, 190-pound junior Colter Stillwagon and 5-10, 160-pound junior Cody From. Bouchee, Johnston and Ashby drew the starts for the opener.
The running back strongs. Senior speedster Blake Burton (5-10, 175) gained 700 yards last year. Junior Ryan Moodry (5-11, 195) brings power and good speed to the carry corps. Moodry is also the kicker. They’ll fill out the backfield Friday.
A lot of the same faces will be seen on defense. Ashby and McGree will be back at cornerback and safety, while Johnston takes over the other corner in a move from outside linebacker where he was a starter last fall.
Petritz and former inside linebacker Shea will line up at ends with Ryan Richards and Antonioli manning tackles. Moodry and 5-10, 180-pound junior returning starter Hunter Hartwick bring experience and womp to the inside linebacker positions. Returning starter Burton is joined by Schneider as the starting outside linebackers. Noah McGee, a 5-11, 165-pound junior, might also see some time in linebacker duty.
“We have veterans and rookies,” Peoples said. “We gave good experience, but we have guys starting their first games, too.”
Veteran Belgrade head coach Eric Kinnaman has one of the better running backs in the state to take the ball. Senior Hayden Van Winkle, 5-11, 180 pounds, is drawing college interest. The Panthers will see 5-11, 170-pound senior Zack Spady take over as their starting quarterback. A top prospect is speedy running back Jamal Williams while Spencer Gordon is expected to lead the receiving corps.
The Belgrade roster lists more than 70 players from the senior, junior and sophomore classes, giving the Panthers another good turnout. Peoples added, too, that Kinnaman and his staff always field a well-coached team.
“They’re always a challenge,” the coach of the Maroons said.
Peoples said he is planning to use a lot of Maroons so that their play can be evaluated. He admitted, too, to some coaching nerves on the eve of the season kickoff.
“At this time of the year, we, as coaches, feel like we could use three or four more practices,” he said. “But, we’ve had 19 and (the Maroons) are ready for a game.”
So, with an area rivalry renewed in the colliding of two perennially good foortball programs, Friday’s pop quiz for this year’s prospects should, indeed, pop.
“We’re eager to find out what kind of team we have,” Peoples said.
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