By Bill Foley
The Montana East-West Shrine Game is about so much more than football.
It is about raising money for the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Spokane. It is about the hospital ambassadors. It is about bring out the best in people.
The football, though, is pretty good, too.
The “best of the best” will battle for the 75th time Saturday as Montana’s premiere all-star football game heads to Memorial Stadium in Great Falls. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast live by the Montana Television Network.
The game will also be carried live by KBOW with Paul Panisko and retired coach Mike Cutler on the call. Listen live at 550 AM, 101.5 FM, kbow550.net or on the KBOW app.
“I’m excited for Saturday,” West coach Bryce Carver, a former Dillon star who coached Hamilton to the Class A state title last fall, said during an appearance this week on KBOW Overtime. “I’m excited for these kids to enjoy the experience — the parade, media day and then getting ready to go play in front of 5,000 fans.”
Carver also said the selflessness of the West players stands out. This is his third time coaching in the game — but first as head coach — and Carver said this is the most team-first group he has coached.
The team includes recent Butte High graduates Cole Stewart and Dylan Snyder. Stewart, a Montana Tech signee, will play safety, while Snyder will line up at defensive end before switching to receiver at Montana State.
Jake Hayes, a Hamilton assistant, will run the defense for the West. He will have to contend with the likes of Gallatin’s Braeden Mikkelson and Billings West Isaiah Claunch at quarterback and Taco Dowler of Billings West at receiver.
Retiring Great Falls High coach Mark Samson, whose career includes multiple state titles at Helena Capital and a successful run at MSU-Northern, will close his remarkable career as the head coach of the East.
Hayes said he expects Samson’s collection of stars to be a run-first team with running backs like Ryan Krahe of Great Falls High, Michael Deleon of Billings West and future Montana Tech Oredigger Trey Johannes of Columbus.
The team has serious weapons in the passing game with Luke Clinton of Lewistown, Bridger Polk of Great Falls High, Colby Martinez of Columbus, Bryson Zanto of Bozeman at receiver and Gallatin’s Rylan Schlepp at tight end.
“We have an idea, but we can’t watch film on them,” Hayes said of what to expect from the East. “So, you throw in everything that you got, and hopefully in the game you adapt and make an adjustment to something that’s working.”
Hayes has a defense is loaded on every level.
Charlie Kirgan of Missoula Sentinel, Braunson Henriksen of Polson, Callahan Hoffman of Dillon, Braden Guse of Bigfork and Forrest Suero of Helena High will play on the defensive line along with Snyder.
Chase Williams of Sentinel, Trae Thilmony of Thompson Falls, Preston Smith of DarbyMarcus Evans of Helena High, Luke Maki of Florence and Jon Kirkley of Dillon will play linebacker.
Williams was the Class AA defensive MVP in 2011.
Connor McCarthy of Sentinel Brandan Wagner of Whitehall, Chase McGurran of Helena High, and Connor Sullivan of Kalispell Glacier will play safety. Brodie Smith of Whitefish, Braden Morris of Boulder and Drew Klumph of Sentinel will join Stewart at safety.
“This group is the real deal,” Hayes said. “They’re good. They’re fast. They have makeup speed. They communicate.”
On the other side of the ball, the West will be led by a pair of quarterbacks who will playing for the Grizzlies. Kaden Huot of Helena High will play quarterback for the Griz, while Tyson Rostad of Hamilton will likely play defense at UM.
Both will play quarterback Saturday. Carver said both can run and both can throw in the offense that will look a lot like the one Carver coached in Hamilton and played in down in Dillon.
“We’ve got some good skill kids,” Carver said. “Our line is big. We’ve got good running backs. When you’ve got two D-I quarterbacks, it always helps on that side of the ball.”
In receivers Ian Finch of Missoula Hellgate, Blake Schoupe of Florence, Tyler Milev of Calgary, Kyle Lawson of Hot Springs and Caden Zaluski of Florence and Tight ends Jake Genger ofBoulder and Kaiden Batzler of Sheridan, the West has some big-time receivers who will play at the next level.
Finch is heading to UM, Genger and Batzler will play for the Cats, Lawson will go to Montana Western, and Shoupe and Zaluski are future Orediggers.
“Hellgate threw the ball to Finch all the time,” Carver said. “We’ve got two Florence kids, and they threw the ball all the time. We’ve got guys that can go make plays and have done this a lot.
“They’re not coming from running teams coming into a passing offense.”
Hamilton’s Tim Zohner and Florence’s Tristan Pyette will play running back, looking for room behind linemen Chaise Meyer of Missoula Big Sky, Ransey Knowles of Sentinel, Kevin Hanenburg of Frenchtown, Dylan Cunningham of Helena Capital, Jonas Johnson of Hamilton, Jamey Michelotti of Capital, Tommy Nilson of Hellgate and Josh Goleman of Helena High.
“We’ll be spread out,” Carver said. “We’ll pound it up front, but we’ll be spreading it out and zinging it too.”
The East defense includes seven players who were named All-State in the Class AA last year. They are Jaxon Cotton of Bozeman, Zach Newton of Great Falls, Caleb Romero of Billings Senior, Ryan Krahe of Greay Falls, Peyton Morton of Senior, Raef Newbrough of Great Falls Russell and Tyler Nansel of Gallatin.
Samson’s assistants on the East are Eric Stoverud of Great Falls High, Tom Tranmer of Power-Dutton-Brady, Aric Hagen of Russell, Mike Jones of Chinook and Levi Wesche of Bozeman.
The East has been training all week in Great Falls, while the West has been practicing in Butte.
Carver’s assists include his father Brett of Dillon, Scott Evans of Helena High, Matt Johnson of Missoula Big Sky and Jim Lawson of Hot Springs.
The 2023 game will return to the Mining City for the fifth time. Rosters for that game will be announced on Christmas morning.