By Bruce Sayler
Billings Senior has been every Class AA football opponent’s biggest challenge the past couple of years.
This week, the Broncs stand in front of the Butte High Bulldogs.
“They have a couple of talented quarterbacks and one of the most talented players in the state in Gabe Sulser,” Butte High head coach Arie Grey said. “They’re an explosive team that does a great job of using Gabe in their run game, their pass game and as a decoy.”
Billings Senior is the reigning state Class AA champion and has won a school-record 19 consecutive games dating back to opening week of 2016. The Broncs and the 2-4 Bulldogs will vie on Friday night in a Class AA Conference game at Naranche Stadium. The kickoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock. (Radio: KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
Two senior quarterbacks trigger the Billings Senior offense. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Nolan Askelson is a strong passer with good running ability. He is also a standout linebacker, and so divides his time. Head coach Chris Murdock is thrifty about it, not overworking Askelson, yet allowing him to be a bona fide star on both sides of the ball.
When Askelson isn’t behind center, the 6-3, 170-pound Cade Torgerson directs the offense and is also quite capable, Grey affirmed.
“They break a lot of tackles in their running game,” Grey said, “and they have multiple skill guys.”
Sulser is regarded an extremely strong Montana Gatorade Player of the Year candidate and as a returning star from last year’s Bronc championship team. At 5-9, 165, Sulser has good speed and quickness. He is threat as a ball-carrier and as a receiver and returner. Not all of the plays go to him, but the Senior attack relies heavily on the opposing defense planning for them to do so.
“They use Sulser as a decoy quite a lot,” Grey said. “Obviously, he’ll attract quite a bit of attention.”
A Billings Senior 49-14 win over Missoula Big Sky last week saw Askelson complete 20 of 27 passes for 231 yards, including four touchdowns. Sulser caught nine of the passes, including two of the touchdown throws, for 102 yards.
The Broncs’ running game is led by 6-0, 200-pound senior Blake Allred and 5-6, 170-pound senior Adan Trevizo. When Askelson and Torgerson are unable to fit the ball to Sulser in the passing game, they’ll look for 6-2, 170-pound senior Carter Garsjo.
Grey said the Broncs’ defense operates out of a 4-2-5 principle that features a ton of blitzing.
“It’s part of what their secondary can do,” the coach said. “They create as much havoc as they can. They fly to the ball and they’re good tacklers. That’s a good reason why they’ve won 19 in a row.”
Askelson had three sacks out of his linebacker slot against Big Sky, and the leader up front has been 6-3, 180-pound junior lineman Gunner Hegg. It is not an enormous line the Broncs station, but a more athletic one that plays big. Micah Ans, a 6-0, 170-pound senior, has six interceptions this season starring in the secondary.
Grey pointed out this Billings Senior team features some ballplayers from the Little League baseball team that played in the 2011 Little League World Series. So, they’re used to winning and have confidence in championship abilities.
“They’re playing really good football,” Grey said. “They have good confidence in what they’re doing.”
Butte High can rightfully play with confidence, too. The Bulldogs are 2-4, but they’ve competed very well all season and are coming off a 56-53 double-overtime loss to Billings West. The outcome was both a disappointment and a confidence-builder.
“I’m proud of the kids and how they bounced back,” Grey said. “They’re ready to roll.
“I keep telling them that we have a good team. We can compete with anybody. We have done that all year. There’s been only one game we weren’t happy with how we played.”
A lot of Bulldogs on offense touched the ball while working with the help of a good offensive line last weekend. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Mellott directed a responsive unit. He scored one touchdown running and passed for three — two to junior Kash Kelly and one to newly unveiled weapon, sophomore Quinn Sullivan. Kelly, a former quarterback, and Sullivan also hooked up on a TD pass. Senior running back Bo Mortensen crashed over the goal line for a TD and will draw two-way starting duty this weekend.
Mortensen will fill an outside linebacker as a starter on defense, in for injured Marcus Garcia, out this week with an ankle injury suffered in the game against Billings West.
Brady Deck, Kaden Hanni and Kody Keene also caught passes last week, and Josh Neil ran for yardage.
The offensive line is back intact, having healed some injuries, but Nate Ferguson is still missing from tight end, kicker, punter and defensive end because of a leg injury. Deck has done well filling in at tight end, and junior Trevyn Roth has been dependable in the kicking role. Mellott punts, and Rylan Waananen has taken over a starting defensive end spot.
Grey was happy with the Bulldogs’ performances against West.
“The effort was awesome and our toughness was awesome,” he said. “We had to do some shifting with guys (because of injuries) and those stepped in and made plays. In a game like that, is important everybody does his job on every play. All we ask of the kids is what they’re capable of doing.”
The same approach is needed against Billings Senior, Grey said.
“I thought our discipline and execution was very good,” he said. “I’m proud of our kids. We have to play with great effort, great confidence, great execution and great toughness.”
So, Grey said, the coming contest with the Broncs is one the team has been looking forward to since, well, enduring the heartbreaker against West.
“We’re excited to go up against (the Broncs),” he said. “If we can control the controllables, we’ll be right in the game. We’ll see how we rebound.
“I thought we rebounded really well last week (after a close loss to Missoula Sentinel). We’re excited for the opportunity. We’ll compete and get after them. We can control our effort, our toughness and our execution. If we control those things when we get on the field, good things are going to happen.”
Probable Butte High starters follow:
Offense — Center — Carter Pribnow, 6-1, 240, senior. Guards — Brennan Nielsen, 6-3, 200, senior, and Kyle Harding, 6-1, 220, junior. Tackles — Greyson Mandic, 6-2, 230, senior, and Robbie Leipheimer, 5-11, 210, senior. Tight end — Brady Deck, 6-0, 165, senior. Wide receivers — Kaden Hanni, 6-1, 140, senior; Kody Keene, 5-11, 160, senior, and Kash Kelly, 5-9, 140, junior. Running back — Bo Mortensen, 5-11, 195, senior. Quarterback — Tommy Mellott, 5-9, 165, sophomore.
Defense — Tackles — Jeff Queer, 6-2, 240, senior, and Corbin Walker, 5-10, 215, senior. Ends — Rylan Waananen, 6-2, 190, junior, and Greyson Mandic, 6-2, 230, senior. Linebackers — Carl Anderson, 5-8, 170, junior; Cole Walker, 6-0, 175, senior; and Bo Mortensen, 5-11, 195, senior. Cornerbacks — Robin Bagley, 5-9, 140, senior, and Kale McCarthy, 6-1, 155, junior. Safeties — Ty Peterson, 5-10, 150, senior, and Dakota Eggars, 6-0, 160, junior.