By Bruce Sayler
The one-game-at-a-time mantra is being chanted daily throughout Butte High football meetings and practices these days, if not literally then certainly figuratively.
The Bulldogs have qualified for the state Class AA playoffs, which begin next week. Who, when and where they will play will all be sorted out Friday night.
Butte High will be part of the process with its road game against Missoula Sentinel at 7 p.m. Friday in MCHS Stadium. The Bulldogs sit in fifth place in the Western AA at 3-3 in league games and 4-4 overall. Two-time defending state AA champion Sentinel is 4-2 and 6-2, and in third place. Kalispell Glacier is in fourth.
Arie Grey, head coach of the Bulldogs, said too many variables are in play to talk about what might be, let alone will be, in the playoff scene.
“We’re just going to focus on what we can control,” he said. “We’ll still be playing next week. We know that.”
So, the focus has been on trying to beat the Sentinel juggernaut. The Spartans haven’t flexed the same muscle they had in a 25-game win streak that included state titles the previous two seasons. Their streak was ended by Helena High earlier this year.
Still, Sentinel has proven to have built a formidable program under the direction of head coach Dane Oliver.
“It’s another opportunity to get better,” Grey said while looking to Friday’s game. “Our kids are focused and excited to go down and play Missoula Sentinel. They’re a good program and they do so many things well. We’re excited to go down and play some good football.”
Butte High beat Missoula Hellgate 55-0 last week while dropping the curtain on Naranche Stadium for the season. The win followed losses to conference title contenders Glacier and Helena High.
“We kind of had some adversity last week and were able to prepare ourselves and not panic,” he said about the recovery. “We went to the next play and then we’d go to the next play, and so on. We controlled what we could.”
The Spartans present a variety of risks to confront, the coach acknowledged.
“Sentinel is physical and plays great football,” Grey said. “It is such a challenge for us to go on the road and play a good team. They have a very balanced football team. They play physical and fast and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Key in the Spartans’ approach is senior Adam Jones, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound running back and defensive back who leads the team in rushing (81.5 yards a game) and receiving and has also scored a team-high 12 touchdowns. He passed for one touchdown and caught a TD pass in Sentinel’s 28-14 win over Butte High last year in Butte. Jones ran for 149 yards on the Naranche Stadium turf.
Grey said Jones is also the team’s defensive leader.
“Sentinel’s skill players are all good and their quarterback (Riley Allen) is a competitor with a good arm,” Grey said. “They’ll spread the ball around and be a challenge.
“Their defense is physical and well-coached. They play a lot of guys in and out of the lineup and they give you a lot of different looks. They’re tough.”
J.J. Dolan and Jace Koshatka have been defensive leaders for the Spartans.
Butte High broke out on top of Hellgate with three touchdowns in the first quarter last week, scoring one on an interception by Kale McDonald and having a fumble recovery set up another. They scored on another fumble recovery later.
“Last week, the turnover conversions were good and, on the flip side, when turned the ball over, we did well defensively,” Grey said. “Against Sentinel, when there might be mistakes, we need to take advantage of them.”
He said the practices were a little more upbeat after the win over Hellgate.
“Our guys are resilient,” Grey said. “It was a nice week after a win. And, the guys are excited for this opportunity. We have an opportunity to have a chance to do some special things.
“Every guy needs to control what he can and be a good teammate. If we do those things, we can have a good night (Friday) night.”
Grey said the injury situation is good for the Bulldogs and depth has been built through the “next man up mentality” the team has experienced through the season.
Senior quarterback Jace Stenson has completed 59 percent of his passes and thrown to many receivers while totaling 2,128 through the air. Senior Cameron Gurnsey, a Montana commit, leads the corps with 39 catches for 603 yards. Also in triple figures in receiving yards are freshman Cayde Stajcar, 22 catches for 331 yards; junior Rueso Batterman, 22 for 274; senior Sean Ossello, 17 for 330, and freshman tight end Hudson Luedtke, 28 for 389.
Stenson has run for 409 yards on 101 keepers, and junior running back Trey Hansen is next on the team in rushing with 285 yards on 91 carries. Stenson also has 2,537 total yards. Gurnsey is next-high with 603.
On defense, the total tackles leader is senior linebacker Isaac Kohler with 44 while senior Luke Garrison has 42 in six games. Safety Ethan Cunningham is next with 39 followed by Luke Verlanic with 36 and Aiden Cuchine with 33.