BILLINGS – Montana’s East and West Shrine teams met for the first time Friday evening at the event banquet at the Al Bedoo Temple auditorium in Billings, as players, coaches and other VIPs were introduced in anticipation of Saturday’s big game.
The 68th annual Montana East West Shrine football game will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. at Laurel High School Stadium, as the West will try to close the gap on the East’s 37-30 series lead with a win.
In addition to introductions, the “Most Inspirational” awards for each team were announced. It was no surprise that East player Koni Dole of Huntley Project garnered his team’s award, as the standout athlete has excelled despite the partial amputation of his right leg. The winner of the West’s John C. Richards Most Inspirational award was center Jake McElroy of Missoula Loyola.
“I just want to say something real quick,” McElroy said to the capacity crowd as he accepted his plaque. “We do it for the kids!”
There was plenty of inspiration in the room, as representatives and patients from the Shriners Hospital in Spokane were on hand, while additional money was raised for the charity through a silent and live auction.
West coach Rick Nordahl of Dillon, who led the Beavers to an undefeated State Class A championship season in his first year as head coach at Beaverhead County High School, said his team has its work cut out Saturday night.
“We understand the East has some great players and that they have seven Bozeman players and three Bozeman coaches,” in addition to head coach Troy Purcell, Nordahl said. “That’s an advantage for them because they know the schemes very well. It’s also kind of an advantage for us because we had a lot of our players on the same team with them for the Mon-Dak game. The guys understand their schemes and they know what kind of talent they’re going to see.”
The West has a bit of talent as well, as Butte’s Dallas Cook and Jared Trinastich from Columbia Falls both bring solid skills and leadership to the quarterback position.
“Both of those guys come from the same style of offense and Coach (Tony) Arntson is really utilizing their talents,” Nordahl said. “They both throw a great ball and have good vision downfield.”
Cook and running back Noah James of Kalispell Glacier will serve as the West offensive captains, while linebacker Troy Scott of Dillon and Glacier defensive back Evan Epperly will represent the mountain side on defense. The vote for captain was a close one, Nordahl said.
“There were 30 different guys who could have been captains,” he said. “The vote was that close, but it shows that we really have leadership on the field by committee. These guys are all out there just doing their jobs, and I think they were really playing sound football by the end of the week.”
Nordahl said he’s been pleased with the progression of his offensive line, which he called one of the toughest groups to get together as a unit.
“They come from a lot of different programs, but coach (Joe) McElroy has done a great job bringing them together,” he said. “The East has a big defensive line and linebackers and our guys are going to need to take care of their assignments to give our running backs a chance to find a crease.”
In addition to third-generation player Connor Schulte of Butte Central, the West will look to linemen McElroy, Zach Dennehy of Glacier and tight end Connor McGree of Butte Central to have a good game. Maroon running back Wyatt Kingston will join James out of the backfield in search of yards on the ground.
“If they pack seven in the box, then we’ll have to get the ball to our receivers, and I think we have a great crew,” Nordahl said, referring to Ennis standout Connor Sullivan, Butte Central star Kale Guldseth and Butte High’s Peter Granger.
The West defense is led by a solid defensive front, including Butte High defensive end Johnny Walker.
“We’ve got some big ol’ boys up there who demand doubles,” Nordahl said. “We can put up a 4-3 or 3-4 front and it’s going to take a good offensive team to block them. Our secondary has progressed this week. The East has good receivers with size, and it should make for a great game.”
Nordahl lauded his staff, pointing to their genuine care for their players. Steve Vezina of Dillon joins Arntson of Helena, McElroy of Missoula Loyola, Jay Fredrickson of Ennis and Butte Central’s Pat Schulte as assistants. Trainers Steve Gross and Lindsay Kambich and manager Bryan Prendergast also drew praise from Nordahl.
The team came together from the get-go said West team coordinator Jeff Hartwick of Butte’s Baghdad Shrine.
“These guys meshed from day one,” Hartwick said. “It doesn’t usually happen that early, but after the first meetings they all gathered in the same room and hung out together. There weren’t any cliques, and you can see that they work well together.”
The players showed plenty of class at the banquet as well, giving Vezina – who is undergoing chemotherapy in a battle with cancer – a standing ovation. Many of the players were also decked out in fancy tuxedo-wear.
“On their own, these guys went to Thomas’ and worked a deal where the proceeds from renting the clothes would be donated to the Hospital,” Nordahl said. “These guys are all great football players, but they’re all so humble. There’s no one acting like a superstar.
“These guys are all great humans. I think these kids are already winners.”