By Bruce Sayler
The recent history is that the East won 24-21 last year and controls a 40-32 lead in the 72-year-old series.
The 73rd annual holding of the Montana East-West Shrine Game is set for Saturday with a 7 p.m. kickoff on Bob Green Field at Montana Tech. It marks the second time the high school football all-star classic will be held on the Orediggers’ turf and the fourth time the clash has been held in Butte.
The game pits available high school senior standouts from the previous fall’s football season in an all-star tilt. The sides are geographically divided between the eastern and western halves of the state. Enrollment class matters none. The players are the best available the state has to offer.
The game will be televised on CBS and broadcast live on KBOW Radio (550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
Great Falls was the host of the game from 1947 until Butte took its first turn at it in 2010. Record funds were raised for the Shrine Children’s Hospital in Spokane, which is the financial beneficiary of each game.
The now Great Falls-Butte-Billings rotation of the series has greatly produced an uptick in amounts raised and local organizer Jeff Hartwick said he is hoping to see another record set with the Saturday game. About $2 million has been sent from the game to the Spokane hospital over the 72 years, half of it since the move to a three-city rotation.
Prospects for a good game this year seemed likely after conversations Friday during a barbecue social on the Bob Green Field grounds. Word from the East followers is that championship experience should give it the edge, counting on expertise of reigning state champs from Class AA Billings West, Class A Billings Central, Class B Fairfield and Class C 6-man football titlist Wibaux.
West coaches tout their charges’ togetherness and quick studies as well as the high level of athleticism found on both rosters.
Champions are at the controls. West head coach Mike Cutler has guided Flint Creek to the past two state Class C eight-man football crowns while stringing 24 consecutive victories. East head coach Les Meyer of Fairfield directed the Eagles to the Class B throne last November. Cutler’s Titans won their 2018 championship on Butte’s Naranche Stadium over Great Falls Central in a neutral-site experiment for the Class C title tilt.
Cutler said he and Meyer have been frequent opponents and rivals while enjoying practically a lifelong friendship.
“I first played against Les in junior high,” Cutler said, “then in high school and in college. I coached against him at Townsend when he was at Fairview, when he turned that school into a football school.”
Cutler added that when he first coached at Philipsburg, Meyer was coaching at Seeley-Swan.
So, Saturday night, they’ll be staring across the field from the sidelines once again, and a friendly wave between the two wouldn’t be surprising.
“I have the utmost respect for Les and what he’s done,” Cutler said.
The speed shown and the athleticism displayed by those on the rosters screams for explosive styles of game. Cutler said not to be too sure.
“To say that would be disrespectful to the defenses,” he said. “It could just as easily be a low-scoring game.”
Mostly, the anticipation and preparations for the game have been fun, coaches relayed.
“I’d love to have an entire fall with these guys,” Cutler said. “They’re outstanding young men, and they can play.”
He noted that the East shows good size and he is familiar with top-notch talent the opposing roster opposes. He also likes the kids on his team.
“I look for our chemistry to be a strength,” he said. “Situations will always come up that might not go our way and I think chemistry will put us over the hump.”
The veteran coach pointed to late-night whiffleball games his charges played on the Bob Green Field well after practices this week as a team-building exercise, impromptu as they were. They came out of practices together and unscathed.
The East practiced this week in Billings and arrived in time for Friday’s barbecue.
Meyer will have the opportunity to coach his son, Ryder, for the last time. The younger Meyer is listed as a safety on the Shrine Game rosters, but could see time at a variety of spots, either side of the ball. He is a University of Montana recruit and Cutler said he respects the ability very much.
Another East threat is Bozeman receiver Ryan Simpson, a 6-foot-6 standout also headed for UM. Logan Kennedy of Laurel is a top tight end, and is a Montana Tech signee.
Quarterbacks Joe Byorth of Billings Central and Montana Tech-bound Mitchell Norslien of Lewistown figure to lead the East. Jack Studer of Billings Central and Riley Dickinson of Great Falls Central will likely power the running game.
The East size is highlighted by 6-6, 285-pound Tariq Essa, the team’s Canadian representative from Calgary; 6-2, 265-pound Walker Heckman of Fairfield; 6-2, 260-pound Mavrick McKinlay of Geraldine and Billings West standout Kobe Nelson, a 6-4, 250-pounder also one of Montana Tech’s 18 recruits suiting up for the game.
Brody Grebe of Melstone/Roundup and Kade Wilcox of Billings West are leaders at linebacker.
Any of the 41 on either roster, though, could emerge as a game star. Such ability qualified them to play in the contest.
Quarterbacks Jaden MacNeil of Kalispell Flathead, Ty McGurran of Helena High and Rylan Ortt of Missoula Sentinel have all shown well in West drills. Cutler said athleticism is a strongpoint.
“They can beat you with their legs as well as their arms,” he said.
MacNeil is an Oredigger recruit while Ortt, a state javelin champion, is headed to Montana State for football. McGurran is an Oredigger recruit, too, and put up some big numbers at Helena.
They have plenty of dependables to throw, too, as in wideouts Anthony Jones of Flathead, Anders Epperly of Bigfork and Camron Rothie of Hamilton. Epperly’s grandfather, the late Bill Epperly, is a Butte native and coached the Montana Tech men’s basketball program in the late 1970s.
The East defense, though, will not be able to be singularly focused. West running backs Blake Counts of Flathead and Colton McPhee of Columbia Falls were both 2,000-yard rushers last fall.
The Canadian representative for the West is 6-1, 295-pound lineman Nick Schmeiler, and good size also comes from 6-1, 290-pound Gage Karlin of Columbia Falls and 6-4, 250-pound Andrew Siderius of Flathead.
Holden Sampson, son of Butte native Bob Sampson, is a standout on the offensive line at 6-3, 255 and bound for Montana State. Defensive stars, some of several, include Aleric Greil of Helena Capital at end, linebacker Landers Smith of Charlo, cornerback Jace DeWalt of Missoula Sentinel and safety Kameron Rauser of Townsend.
Kicker Carver Gilman of Whitefish has been booting 55-yard field goals in practice. DeWalt, Alex Johnsn of Helena High, Ortt and Sampson are the West co-captains.
Butte is well-represented in the game with receiver Clay Fisher and safety Cade Holter, both of Butte Central, and safety Kale McCarthy and defensive end Rylan Wannanen, both of Butte High. Butte High defensive coordinator Bryan Arntson is serving in the same capacity on the West staff.
Also from the area and set to play are Kane Hess of Flint Creek and Tyler Walker of Dillon. Gary Ferris of Dillon is on the coaching staff and so is Hamilton head coach Bryce Carver, a former Dillon standout player. Butte High teacher Lindsey Kambich has been threatening that this year, her 17th, might be her last on the West training staff. If so, players will miss her care and her big-sister demeanor she has brought to the program.