By Bill Foley
Midway through the first quarter Friday night, gusting winds and heavy rain overtook Naranche Stadium in Uptown Butte.
There might have even been a little lightning not too far in the distance as a crowd of about 3,500 scattered for shelter.
That however, was not the storm of concern for the Helena High Bengals.
Rather, it was the Butte High Bulldogs who unleased a furious wrath on the Helena High. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 27-0 lead and held on for a 34-20 Western AA football victory that will surely send shockwaves throughout the state. (Stats)
“They’re a really good team,” Butte High quarterback Jace Stenson said. “We just came out hard and hit them in the mouth.”
Stenson tossed four touchdowns as Butte High improved to 2-1 overall with the win in the conference opener. He hooked up twice with Dylan Snyder and once apiece with Jonas Sherman and Cameron Gurnsey.
Senior kicker Casey Kautzman booted field goals of 41 and 42 yards.
The Bulldogs also held Helena star quarterback Kaden Huot in check for most of the night. The future University of Montana player passed for two touchdowns and ran for one more. It was too late, however.
“We game planned him all week,” said senior linebacker Keegen Muffich, one of four Bulldogs to get in on a sack of Huot. “We knew he was going to be tough to take down, and we just kept fighting and getting to him all night.”
(Story continues below photo gallery)
Things looked like they would go their way late in the first quarter. Staring into the teeth of the storm, Huot saw his punt blocked in the end zone. Instead of a safety or a Bulldog touchdown, however, Helena’s Timothy Tamol recovered the ball and ran to the 18-yard line for a first down.
Before Bulldog fans could figure out what exactly happened on the play, however, Butte High began its scoring barrage.
Butte High took the lead for good when Stenson found Snyder for a short reception. The Bulldog senior receiver took it from there, racing down the Helena sideline toward the west end zone. He dove past the pylon for a 23-yard touchdown that put Butte High up for good just 9 seconds into the second quarter.
Stenson found a leaping Sherman for a 12-yard score to make it 14-0 with 8 minutes, 4 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs extended the lead to 17-0 when Kautzman, whose extra points, field goals, punts and kickoff have become must-see events at Naranche, easily drilled a 41-yard field goal toward Main Street.
Butte High got the opening kick of the second half, and the Bulldogs wasted little time.
On the third play of the half, Stenson went deep to Gurnsey for a 52-yard touchdown. Gurnsey, who has 27 receptions through three games, made a nice catch and dove into the end zone as a Helena tackler grabbed his legs.
Kautzman’s extra point made it 24-7. His 42-yard field goal to cap the next Bulldog possession made it 27-0.
As most figured he would, Huot got the Helena offense going late in the third quarter. He got the Bengals on the board with a 36-yard strike to Kade Schlepp with 4:08 left on the clock.
Butte High responded when Stenson found Snyder for another score, this time for 18 yards on a screen, to make it 34-7 with 41 ticks left in the third. On the score, Snyder followed the blocks of lineman Zach Tierney and Rylan Mulcahy.
One player after hitting Chase McGurran for a 10-yard pass, Huot scored on a 1-yard sneak to make it a 34-14 game with 10:59 left.
Helena started to really make things interesting. The defense forced the Bulldogs into a series of three and outs, and Huot found McGurran for an 18-yard score with 6:58 left. The 2-point conversion failed, leaving the Bengals trailing by 14.
“We’ve got to be able to finish in the fourth quarter,” Butte High head coach Arie Grey said. “I’m a little bit disappointed with what we did offensively with the three and outs, but that’s something we’ll get better at.”
The Bengals got the ball back, but a pressured Huot threw a deep incomplete pass on four and 6 from the Helena 40-yard line.
Butte High could not get the first down on three plays. The Bulldogs, though, went for it on forth and 3 from the 33, and Stenson found Gurnsey for a 16-yard gain and a game-clinching first down.
“We started letting down a little bit, but we picked it up and got the dub,” Stenson said. “That’s all that matters.”
Stenson praised Gurnsey, Snyder and Sherman, three receivers who cleared 6 feet in the high jump this spring.
“It’s really nice,” Stenson said. “They’re all athletic, and they all go up and get the ball when it’s up there. They go hard every play.”
Butte High also unveiled a weapon in senior Kenley Leary, who had been in a battle with Stenson for the starting quarterback job.
Leary was Butte High’s Swiss Army Knife Friday, pretty much playing every position but lineman. He opened the game at quarterback and threw a jump ball to Gurnsey for 39 yards. He caught a pass and was a spark plug on the Bulldog defense playing linebacker.
“He’s just a talented football player,” Grey said of Leary, who missed most of the fourth quarter with a leg cramp. “He’s a kid we’ve got to play all over the field on both sides of the ball and on special teams.”
Leary is already a standout in basketball, track and baseball. He seems ready to burst onto the Class AA varsity football scene, too.
“Since we can spread him all over the field, he can be pretty dangerous,” Grey said. “I was proud of the way he competed this week and how he played.”
Butte High demonstrated a plethora of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Wiley Dallaserra and fellow junior Kale McDonald each broke up a pair of passes. Leary and Holt Downy broke up one. Dallaserra made what might have been the defensive play of the game when be quickly broke on the ball to break up a Huot pass on a fake punt.
Tierney joined Muffich with a sack. Max Demarais and Riley Downey combined for another.
Dallaserra’s 11 total tackles paced the Bulldogs. Connor Konda registered 10, while Muffich and Tierney followed with nine and eight.
“We’ve got a bunch of playmakers out there on the defense, and I’m proud of them all,” Muffich said.
Huot ran for 103 yards and passed for 222 more. Much of that came after the Bulldogs took the 27-0 lead.
“The defense played lights out all night long,” Grey said. “Eventually, Kaden is going to get his plays. He’s just such a great player. For the most part, we played really well all night long defensive.”
Grey pointed to defensive coordinator Bryan Arntson for calling a strong game. He also had lots of praise for his players on both sides of the ball.
“The defensive kids just played fast and physical,” Grey said. “Hats off to the kids for buying in. We needed some consistency offensively. By going with Jace we got some consistency. It’s going to take the pressure off the rest of our guys.”
Helena, a team many picked to contend for the state title, fell to 2-1. While so many across the state will be surprised to see the score from the Naranche storm, the Bulldogs were not.
“We worked hard all week,” Muffich said, “and I was pretty sure that we would come out here and whoop them.”