Bulldogs shoot for state grid crown

It all comes down to this.

All the hours on the practice field.  All the reps in the weight room. All the early morning workouts. All the sacrifice and preparation of the last two Montana Class AA football teams left standing.

The victor will be decided under the Friday night lights of Naranche Stadium, as Butte High hosts Bozeman for the 2012 Class AA Montana State Football Championship.

Kickoff for the game is slated for 7 p.m., with Naranche’s gates slated to open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets, which have been on sale all week at the Butte Civic Center, will also be available at the gate.

Bozeman (9-3) will be seeking its second title in three years, while Butte High (10-2) will play for its first championship since the 1991 Bulldogs won it all.

“This is a very exciting time,” fifth-year Butte High head coach Arie Grey said Thursday afternoon. “The kids deserve this. They’ve all worked hard to get to this point and I’m very proud of them.”

Grey has seen to it that his team prepares for the championship game against Bozeman the same way it has each week throughout the season.

“We’re just going to continue to work hard every day and make sure we take care of the little things,” Grey said. “Doing those little things is what has led to us playing in the state championship game.”

Bozeman head coach Troy Purcell is similarly proud of his team.

“There are only two teams left and it’s fun being one of them,” Purcell said via telephone Thursday evening. “What a venue for this game. It should be a wild show.”

The Hawks have even resorted to practicing with speakers blaring in an attempt to replicate the significant crowd noise at Naranche.

Butte High borrowed some temporary bleachers and raised the capacity of Naranche from 4,200 to 7,000. Bleachers are now present behind the east end zone as well as the empty spaces on the south side of the facility behind Butte High’s bench.

Chief stadium engineer Ned Ellingwood said tickets have been selling well, with more than 5,000 having been purchased by Wednesday – 1,100 of them which had been sent to Bozeman.

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Grey said. “It’s what you dream of as a kid, playing in front of a bunch of great fans, and we have the greatest fans in the world. It’ll be a phenomenal atmosphere, but no one knows exactly what it will be like until we go out and see it.”

The field itself is in excellent condition, thanks in large part to the immediate snow removal before last weekend’s thrilling semifinal overtime victory over Great Falls Russell. Butte has practiced the final few days on the game field, as opposed to the practice field south of the school.

“The field is in the best shape it’s been in all year,” Grey said. “It’s perfect.”

The Bulldogs defeated Bozeman 28-19 earlier this season in Butte, though Hawk quarterback Will Weyer was on the sidelines with a recently broken collarbone. Weyer is back, and the Hawks have won five straight games en route to the title matchup.

Purcell expects a tight contest.

“I anticipate the game will be within a touchdown, one way or the other,” he said. “It’ll be a battle for field position and turnovers. Special teams will be important too, and whoever wins those will have an opportunity to win the game.”

Special teams figured prominently in the teams’ last time around on Sept. 28. Butte High got on the board first when Bryce Armstrong blocked a punt and Jason Vesco recovered it in the end zone. Bozeman took its final lead of the game, 19-14, when Chris Johnson returned a blocked 25-yard field goal attempt 87 yards for a touchdown. Butte put the game away in the fourth quarter with a clutch pooch punt by Butte quarterback Dallas Cook.

“You know, Bozeman is playing its best football of the season right now,” Grey said. “Looking back at the first game, we need to be more successful in the red zone. We have to take care of the ball and we need to put some drives together. The team that takes better care of the ball will give themselves a chance to be successful.”

After Butte High fell behind 30-14 with just 20 minutes left to play last weekend against Great Falls Russell, the Bulldog defense stepped up and recovered three straight fumbles. Anthony Moritz, Bo Taylor and Andre Vialpando all came up with takeaways.

“There are so many ways a game can go,” Grey observed. “Whichever team handles adversity best and plays four quarters of football will be successful.”

“Offensively we’ve done a great job all year getting the ball in the hands of playmakers,” Grey said. “Each week someone steps up. They all want to be the guy who gets us going every week, and that’s huge.”

Purcell said his team is well aware of the challenges facing its defense.

“We’ve got to get some bodies on Cook,” Purcell said. “They run the iso and the draw series with a spread field. He’s such a weapon. We have to get some pads on (Zach) Bunney. He is fast. Their whole offense is so tough and never lets up. Just about the time you think you’ve got ‘em, they sneak up on you and you’re going home with a loss.”

Grey has similar concerns when his defense is on the field.

“Offensively, Weyer does a good job getting the ball out quickly,” Grey said. “(Hunter) Gappmeyer is running extremely well with a low center of gravity.”

Butte’s defense has shown the ability to rise to the occasion when called upon. The call was loud last Saturday, as the Rustlers were slowed to a crawl in the final quarter. Daniel Kloepfel was lauded by Grey for big play in the semifinal tilt, while Vialpando made big play after big play.

Billy Robinson played the game of his life – to that point, anyway – and was the lead man in the big stop on the last play of the game.

“Defensively we got better as the game went on,” Grey said. “We had some big stops in the fourth quarter, just huge. The no. 1 thing Friday is we’ve got to do great job locating their players. We need to be sound on pass defense and on the run too. We have to get to the ball and gang tackle. We’ll play with emotion and passion.”

The Hawk defense has been strong all season, holding Butte to three touchdowns (the fourth was special teams) in the teams’ first game.

“Bozeman’s defense impresses me the most,” Grey said. “They’re very sound, they play physical, they pursue to the ball well and they don’t make mistakes. It’ll be a challenge for our offense going up against them.”

The Bulldogs met for their final Thursday evening pre-game meal at the Butte High cafeteria, as the team parents took care of the catering.

“The parents have been great,” Grey said. “Actually, the whole community has been behind us. The support in Butte is just phenomenal.”