By Bruce Sayler
Punctuation, it was. Flint Creek had made its statement and it was a sentence begun 24 games ago on Montana’s Class C high school football, eight-man flavor, turfs.
The Titans were state champs, again. Jaxon Lee’s 60-yard romp on the last real play of the 2018 title tilt played Saturday at Butte’s Naranche Stadium was the exclamation point. The 50-14 outcome had been readily decided, Flint Creek over Great Falls Central. All that was left to exhaust was what’s done on the victory formation. (Stats)
For Lee, the expectations had been completed and the last buzzer sounded the pressure relief valve. The 6-foot, 170-pound junior was a major provider with four touchdowns, including three in a 246-yard rushing performance. The geometric runner of sharp corners and crossfield dashes was strong enough to shed tacklers in piles and his total in all-purpose yards was 346. Lee’s two pass interceptions in the end zone on defense, three picks total, further embedded himself as a royal pain in the Mustangs’ posteriors.
Those were dragging, too, by game’s end. It was part of a ploy by Flint Creek head coach Mike Cutler. He said after the state championship game that the Titans had hoped to wear the Great Falls Central players down. If it didn’t happen, well, then, the 36-point gap achieved on yet another Lee TD, a 4-yard pass from Kade Cutler, with 11 minutes, 17 seconds still left to play, could’ve testified otherwise. The spread activated the 36-point difference rule which runs the clock continuously. The touchdown was connived on an onside kick Titan Luke Holland recovered for Flint Creek on a kickoff after the team had just scored on a 1-yard plunge by Colby Manley into the end zone. A leg injury suffered last week in the Titans’ semifinal win over Shelby hobbled Manley, but didn’t keep him out of the end zone as he followed good blocking from the line.
“We were well-conditioned,” Lee said amid the hand-shaking and picture-taking en vogue after state championship victories. “This feels awesome, but I can’t say, yet, right now, how it REALLY feels.”
(Story continues below photo gallery)
Vindicated seemed to be the word of the huddle. Flint Creek beat Forsyth last year to end a 12-0 autumn with a championship, then just matched the effort Saturday, only ending with a Great Falls Central program playing in its first state title football game since its Class AA nearly 50 years ago.
Class C last winter voted to experiment with neutral-site placing of its state championship games for eight-man football. Naranche Stadium was the first winner. A crowd of 1,500 or so turned out on an afternoon of sun, a little wind and 20-some degree temperatures.
The combined Drummond and Philipsburg schools’ endeavor of Flint Creek beat Forsyth 44-30 last year and, now winner of 24 straight games, hasn’t lost a contest since falling to Cascade by 44-34 in the first round of the 2016 playoffs.
Forsyth had been the talked-about favorite prior to last year’s title tilt, Cutler said, leaving the Titans with no such anxiousness. So, after winning then, this season arrived with notice.
“Actually,” Lee said. “Winning last year was better. This year, it was expected. There was pressure all season.”
Cutler said he understood such sentiments from the player, the team.
“It’s harder to defend a championship,” he said. “Nobody expected us to win it last year. Now, the target was on our backs this season and we survived it. I felt it as well.”
He said the effort in such circumstance exemplified the character of the Trojans was should be attributed to assistant coaches J.C. Holland, Nate Bignell, Ray Hess and Jerry Metesh.
“As good a group of coaches as there is in the state,” Cutler said.
Flint Creek scored first as Lee took a pitch from sophomore quarterback Cade Cutler, son of the coach, and cut the play back to the middle of the field then completed the 40-yard touchdown run. He also ran in the two-point conversion and the Titans led 8-0 through one quarter.
The lead was for good. However, it was not unchallenged.
Great Falls Central answered right back.
Senior Noah Ambuehl, a 6-3, 220-pound quarterback, launched a 55-yard connection with Luke Marmon for the Mustangs and Logan Warren kicked the extra point, making the game an 8-7 margin.
“Great Falls Central is a heck of a football team,” coach Cutler said. “They deserved to play in this game.”
The Titans started creating some distance.
Lee ran back the Mustangs’ kickoff 57 yards to the Great Falls Central 22-yard line. Two plays later, Cutler passed to Daniel Brabender for the Flint Creek touchdown and Lee conversion run put up a 16-7 difference.
Lee intercepted an Ethan Vincent pass at the Flint Creek 15-yard line to start a 65-yard scoring drive for the Titans. The nine-play march ended with Lee going the final 10 yards.
The Mustangs were still bucking, though. They took just four plays on the next possession to find the end zone. A 17-yard pass from Ambuehl to Vincent set up a 23-yard TD throw to Drew Newman and Great Falls Central was back to within a touchdown.
Flint Creek showed quick response. Cutler picked and sped his way 61 yards on a keeper and the Titans went to the locker room at halftime in possession of a 28-14 advantage.
Though Flint Creek seemed to tighten down the clincher after intermission, Lee presented that the first half was pretty well-played for the Titans, too.
“I thought we played awesome in the first half,” he said.
College prospect Riley Allen, a 6-6, 250-pound senior, led a Flint Creek defensive front that was almost leak-proof against the Mustangs in the second half. Allen’s late-game fourth-and-goal solo takedown of Ambuehl kept the 36-point difference intact. Conley Wagner and Kane Hess also starred on the defense. The Titans’ offense capitalized on the breathing room gained.
Flint Creek took the second-half kickoff and turned it into a 26-yard scoring run by Lee for a 36-14 cushion. Cutler and Lee alternated on the 65-yard drive.
Lee stymied the Mustangs’ next drive with an interception in the end zone. However, the Titans were stopped similarly by a pick, too, as Shane Girres intercepted for Great Falls Central on the Mustangs’ 3-yard line. Flint Creek was back in business soon as Allen sacked Ambuehl and caused a fumble that Hess recovered for the Titans on the Great Falls Central 3.
Flint Creek tacked on its title-securing touchdowns.
Cutler finished with 136 yards rushing. He ran for one TD. He passed only seven times, completing three of the aerials, two for touchdowns. Wagner was the champions’ leading tackler with 14 and Hess finished with 11. The Titans finished the season with their second consecutive 12-0 record.
“A state championship is always special,” coach Cutler said. “We were fortunate to play in one and win it last year and more fortunate to win a second one this year.
“We have great kids on this team. Everybody wants to be a champion, but our kids want to also prepare to be a champion. They’ll start again on March 1, right after basketball season.”
Drummond won five state C titles before the co-op with Philipsburg to form Flint Creek.
Great Falls Central wound up 10-1 this year under head coach Greg Horton. Ambuehl threw for 236 yards while connecting on 16 of 26 passes. Vincent was the leading receiver with six catches for 78 yards. Marmon gained 71 yards on three grabs. Isaac Armstrong caught three passes before leaving the game with an injury in the second quarter.
The Mustangs were limited to 103 yards on the ground with 49 coming from Ambuehl on keepers.Riley Dickinson led Great Falls Central on defense with 11 tackles.
“Anyone who says there aren’t any good players in eight-man football is crazy,” Mike Cutler said. “There were a couple on this field today who are going to be college football Division I players.”
Next year’s state Class C eight-man championship football game is to be played in Billings.