By Bruce Sayler
The mood was light after Tuesday night’s practice.
The idea of getting one in for the West Shrine Team was in doubt as lightning and thunderstorms chased some of Montana’s best football players inside for an afternoon mostly chalk talk, before relenting and allowing some evening drills on the Naranche Stadium turf.
Cam Gurnsey, Kyle Holter, Jace Stenson and Zach Tierney all knew to expect the unstable conditions. Weather forecasts in Butte are unreliable this time of year, not because of human expertise, but because of elements difficult to predict. All four are from Butte, so they knew just to roll with it.
“It feels great, being back on the football field,” said two-year Butte High starting quarterback Jace Stenson, slated for West Team tight end duty now. “I’m completely new to that, being a tight end. I’m starting to kind of get the hang of it. Knowing the plays and working up to that, that’s what I’m trying for.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Stenson might get a shot at the position at Montana Tech, too, where he has signed to continue his football career. He has the rest of this summer, probably a redshirt year and spring ball then next summer before what his college position will be. His overall football athleticism made him a must-sign for the Orediggers.
Now, he’ll block on some plays, giving him a chance to hit for a change.
“Well, he tries,” Tierney remarked about such a prospect.
The 6-3, 270-pound Tierney is in the line after playing a starring role there for the Bulldogs and will continue in the trenches when he also joins Montana Tech. A two-way line standout, the West staff has him lining up at offensive guard.
“I feel great, now,” he said after a high school career damaged some by injuries that bothered him in football, wrestling and baseball, limiting his unbridled potential. “I don’t know, I guess I was made of glass.
“Just being out here with everyone now is special. I’m having a blast (in Shrine Team camp).”
The 76th Montana East-West Shrine Game will be played on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Naranche Stadium. Gates will open at 5 p.m. and the northwest ticket booth will open at 2 p.m. Costs are $25 for reserved and $10 for general admission. Children aged 12 and under will be admitted free. Early ticket sales will be held 1 to 7 p.m. on Friday at the Maroon Activities Center. The pre-game banquet is to be in the MAC on Friday at 6 p.m. and the cost is $35 per plate, but free to children age 12 and under.
The game is a fund-raiser for the Spokane Shrine Children’s Hospital and has raised more than $1 million for the cause. The parade will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday in Uptown Butte and is known to be a crowd-pleaser.
The East holds a 41-34 advantage in the series, but the West has won the last two years, including 41-34 last year in Great Falls. The game site rotates between Butte, Billings and Great Falls annually.
Head coaches this year are Kyle Mihelish of Helena Capital for the West and Derek Lear of Lewistown for the East. Both produced undefeated state championship seasons the fall of 2022, Mihelish in Class AA and Lear in Class A.
Holter, who played cornerback, wide receiver, running back, quarterback, safety, placekick holder, returnman, etc., for Butte Central is the only player of the four with no plans to play college football.
“I’m going to Tech to just be a student,” he said, and added that cornerback will be where he lines up on Saturday for the West. “I do like playing defense a little more.”
So, his last game will be for the kids. The idea for the game held importance with them all. They said they had not yet met this year’s game honorees, but were familiar with cases.
Gurnsey will follow in his father’s footsteps and catch passes for the University of Montana Grizzlies. He was Butte High’s leading receiver and teamed up with Stenson on many touchdowns and big gains.
“Playing for these kids makes it special,” Gurnsey said.
All four of the Butte players earned postseason honors more than one season and in more than one sport in their high school careers. Their all-around athletic abilities describe the type of team they are on and also that of the opponent.
An aspect they never considered until this week of practice is that of having former rivals sharing their huddle. There was some great, intense high school football played in the area last fall and the standouts, all or them, remember the fire that built with the competition.
The four Butte guys pointed out in this day and age of travel every sport except football, they still grew up knowing a lot of their competitors from other sports. The West roster is chock full of guys who were standouts in basketball, baseball, wrestling, track and other endeavors besides being tremendous in football. So, many paths have been crossed.
“There is a bunch of good athletes out there,” Gurnsey said.
“And, I know a lot of the (Class) A kids,” Holter added.
“I’ve been playing against a lot of these kids in other sports,” Tierney said.
Stenson added with an emphatic head toss that “I never once thought we’d be playing on the same team with a lot of these guys.”
The Butte High-Capital was strong through the past school year and now they share a roster heavy on Bruin and Bulldog influence. The Bulldogs admitted it took a couple of practices to quit looking sideways at the Bruins. Now, they’re finding their commonality.
Tierney noted that a “whole new offense” is being learned by the Butte guys and Holter reminded that there is also “a whole new defense” from what he was expert in as a Maroon. They’ve had only a couple of days to learn the systems.
“But,” Tierney reminded, “we’re practicing three times a day, so we’re getting a lot of reps.”
Plus, this whole show is built by good coaches and good players knowing the intricacies of good football. Adjustments needed will be adjustments made and in a short time.
“The East has pretty good team, too,” Holter noted, reminding the opponents will likely come to town with some unfamiliar looks and tendencies, too.
“We’ve seen some things they might do,” Stenson said, saying video of such is available to the coaches and so studying has been part of the week’s preparations.
Holter watched his older brother, Cade, play in the 2019 Shrine Game. But, for Gurnsey, Stenson and Tierney, they will be playing in the first Shrine Game they will have seen. That is not to say they are not familiar with the magnificence of it, the showcase of Montana’s top football players from all enrollment classes in last fall’s high school season. They certainly didn’t say no when the invitation was extended.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Gurnsey said of being surprised at his selection for the game. “It is pretty cool.”
“It was a good Christmas gift,” he said, noting the teams were released to the public on Christmas Day. “It was good to wake up and see that.”
It was a dream realized for Stenson.
“I was really excited,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I found out Christmas Eve (having stayed up past midnight).”
Holter got the news from his brother, who had played in the 2019 edition.
“I was pretty excited,” Kyle Holter said. “My brother texted me when it came out and it was pretty cool to hear about it from him.”
All are predicting a huge Butte turnout for the game, a couple mentioning they know of Butte people who go to the game every year even when it isn’t in town. Holter urged early arrival to find a seat. Butte has done extremely well in its four previous hostings in the fund-raising department, handing over six-figure checks to the hospital every time.
The Butte boys like their high school football exit being at Naranche Stadium as their chance to play in the Shrine Game.
“It’s going to be weird being on the other sideline,” Gurnsey said about the West apparently being assigned to the northside bench. “It’s going to be special, too, playing in Butte and playing at Naranche one last time.”
Both Tierney and Stenson expressed similar sentiments, Naranche Stadium holding so much meaning to their careers and high school days in general. The chance to play there one more time is treasured, they agreed.
“Naranche is special,” Stenson said. “It will be great to play at Naranche again.”
Holter’s only previous experience at the Butte High stadium came in a game last year. Butte Central usually plays its home games on Montana Tech’s Bob Green Field. However, some renovation was going on at the college facility in late summer, so the Maroons had to borrow Naranche Stadium for their opener against Polson. Butte Central lost the game and the Polson quarterback, a Montana Tech recruit, will be one of the West QBs in Saturday’s game.