There’s palpable positivity and much-needed momentum surrounding the Great Falls High football program right now.
And at least some of it can be traced back to a game under the lights last Halloween.
Bison quarterback Jordan Wilkins hit wide receiver Maxx Sitzmann in stride down the sideline for an 84-yard score, and in the 55th meeting of two bitter rivals, the Bison were, remarkably, ahead of C.M. Russell High.
There they were, up 12-10 over an opponent that, if it were up to Vegas odds makers, was a three touchdown favorite, at least, in this city’s annual crosstown game at Memorial Stadium. A team that had won just two games up until that point, a team that would conclude its season at 2-8, was ahead of the eventual state runner-ups.
For a program that has struggled to sustain momentum in recent years, a program that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008, this was something it could hold on to, store in its memory bank and come back to later, even if it did fall in the end, 19-12.
The Bison were competitive against a good football team. It’s something they would like to see more of, more often.
In mid-August, just a few days before his team began preparations for its home-opener against Missoula Big Sky on Aug. 28 at 7 at Memorial Stadium, Bison head coach Matt Krahe was asked about that particular game.
“I don’t know if it goes all the way through, for a whole year,” he said of any possible momentum. “But … it definitely makes people excited about an offseason. And I think the kids really did work hard during the winter months and in through the summer.”
Still, it didn’t help when Kessler Leonard, a first-team All-State wide receiver, and Randy Keesler, an honorable mention linebacker, graduated. On and off the field, those two steered the ship.
“They were huge leaders on the team,” said Krahe, who’s entering his sixth season as the Bison head coach. “ … And they are definitely going to leave a void on our football team that this year’s seniors are going to have to pick up.”
For the 2015 season, Krahe, the former Choteau star athlete, is optimistic, just like he is every season.
“We want to get off to a good start,” he said. “We want to have a good fall camp and want to build on what we’ve done throughout (the summer). Build on what we’ve done in the weight room, build on the summer that we’ve had and really improve every day that we can until that first game.”
For an offense commanded by graduated quarterback Jordan Wilkins, the Bison managed just 218.4 yards (152.9 pass, 65.5 rush) of total offense per game in 2014 and were second-to-last in points per contest at 12.5.
It’s a new season with a new team, though, and Krahe is hoping another year under the belt of returning contributor Austin Dess, a senior tailback, and the return of senior running back Walker Ferda, can make for a formidable backfield.
“I truly believe it starts with the run,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we are not going to pass the ball, but we have to be able to be positive in the run game, and then when we do take our shots in the air, we have to be productive. We have to catch the ball. We can’t stalemate and not get anywhere.”
The Bison had a tendency to falter late in drives in 2014, turning the ball over in the red zone and not coming away with points when they had the chance. The run game will help with that, Krahe said.
“A big emphasis that we are striving for is being able to run the ball,” he said, “and if you look at being able to finish drives, that’s what it comes down to is being able to run the football, whether or not you’re in the red zone or middle of the field. We’re going to be committed to running that ball.”
Kaden Sukut (6-0, 211) will lead the team in his senior season.
“He had a few snaps (in varsity) and did a very good job at the (junior varsity) level, won a lot of games,” Krahe said. “I’m expecting big things from Kaden this year. He’s worked extremely hard in the weight room. He’s turned into a leader offensively for the kids, knows the offense inside and out and he’s going to have a very good year.”
Sukut, who has a strong arm and been itching to get his shot, appeared in three games last season, completing on 38.5 percent (10-26) of his throws for 137 yards with no interceptions and no touchdowns.
“He’s had this now for three years,” Krahe said. “He’s come up through the ranks, he knows what we are trying to do, and not only that but the offseason in the weight room, he has really hit it hard. Expecting big things from him.”
Sophomore Kevin Boes (6-3, 185) is next in line. The lefty looked impressive while sharing duties with Sukut in the team’s annual scrimmage at Memorial Stadium.
“Kevin Boes is a very physically gifted kid,” Krahe said. “He’s only going to be a sophomore. He’s about 6-3, 185. He’s going to be a good one. Southpaw.”
This is where the Bison should see success. At least that’s the plan.
Ferda (5-10, 190) and Dess (5-10, 205) will see the bulk of the carries. Roshon Thomas, who saw some time at running back and linebacker last season as a junior, is no longer at the school because his family moved. Neither is Keesler, who played primarily at linebacker but ran the ball as well. He will wrestle at University of Great Falls.
Still, the Bison backfield boasts talent.
“That’s a pretty good foundation,” the head coach said of Ferda and Dess.
Among those playing behind them are senior Riley Bail-Grover (5-10, 190), junior Bryce Vaughan (5-11, 165) and sophomore Jordan Komac (5-9, 170)
Dess, the team’s leading rusher in 2014, ran the ball 66 times for 215 yards and three touchdowns, including a breakout performance in a win against Butte where he willed his way to 110 yards on 18 carries and four touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime.
Ferda, meanwhile, missed all of last season with a foot injury, a setback he suffered in two-a-days before the season even started. In his sophomore year, he played four games as a starter before a hip injury caused him to sit out the rest of the season. He broke his other foot during the wrestling season this past year. Ferda, most likely the No. 1 back on the depth chart, looked strong in the scrimmage.
Bison faithful are just hoping he can stay healthy.
“When I look at Walker,” Krahe said, “I look at a guy who’s got tremendous power. He’s extremely athletic, and he’s got a really good burst through the hole. He’s fast. And you compare that to someone like Austin Dess, who’s going to be a bigger, bruising type running back, someone who’s going to be able to hit it inside the tackles and get those three-, four-, five-yard runs that are obviously very important.
“Again, those two have worked very hard in the weight room and I’m expecting big things from both of them.”
The offensive line is an experienced bunch.
“We have five returning lettermen on the offensive line coming back,” Krahe said.
Seniors Erik Warner (6-3, 240) and Bret Britt (6-2, 275) are the right and left tackles, respectively. This will be Warner’s second year as a starter. Xavier Marshall, a junior, will provide depth as a backup.
Seniors Brandon Moes (5-11, 205), a returning two-year starter, and Christian Johnston (6-2, 295) are in the mix for the spots at right and left guard, respectively. Junior Kyle Patton (5-9, 250) will provide depth. Juniors Tallon Gray and Trevor Ross will back them all up.
As of mid-August, a battle at center had emerged between returning senior starter Seth Dabler (5-8, 250) and junior Zak Ray (5-11, 215).
Krahe has high expectations for this group.
“They’ve worked hard just like everybody else,” he said. “If you look at those guys, they are primarily seniors. Two tackles, two guards and a center – that’s five guys who are seniors on the offensive line, and this is their year to get it done.”
The tight end is Riley Watt. A senior, Watt (6-1, 195) knows the ropes.
He replaces Tim Potoczny, the starter a year ago.
“He lettered last year and rotated at the tight end position, so he has a lot of experience at the varsity level,” Krahe said of Watt. “He’ll be the guy at tight end.”
Junior Kaleb Baker (6-0, 180) and sophomore Kyle Winkler (6-4, 180) will give Watt a breather when need be.
The wide receivers, all seniors, are Maxx Sitzmann (5-11, 175), Robert Bruskotter (5-10, 165) and Jamison Hermanson (5-10, 170). Juniors Ryan Johnson (5-9, 135) and Kody Torgerson (6-0, 160) are next in line.
Hermanson backed up Kessler Leonard last year. Sitzmann, who grabbed 36 balls for 424 yards and two touchdowns, and Bruskotter, 10 grabs for 174 yards and a score, started every game for the Bison in 2014. Hermanson, a track athlete, fared well in the kick-return game.
“They are going to be a good group,” the head coach said. “They are going to be good. They have been working extremely hard and when we need to pass the ball, I’m extremely confident in those guys and what they are going to get done. It’s a really good group.”
Great Falls High’s top pass catcher from 2014, Kessler Leonard, who last season tied for a Class AA-best in receptions in the regular season with 60, is now at Montana Western.
Just like their rivals did a year ago, the Bison are moving to a 3-4 front. They ran a 4-3 in 2014 when Geoff Habel was defensive coordinator.
Krahe is taking over defensive responsibilities this season.
“We’ve been installing that and trying to get those concepts and ideas down,” Krahe said. “I like the versatility of the 3-4 and what we can do out of that. So that’s where we are at.”
Before Krahe became coach several years ago, he was the defensive coordinator.
“And when I called the defense as defensive coordinator, that’s what we ran,” he said. “I like a 3-4, so we ran it for five or six years, and then when I got the head job, coach Habel liked the 4-3 and it fit our personnel better and that’s what we switched to. And now, I think going back to it, we have a bunch of guys who can be a linebacker-type body and that’s what we are going to do.”
A year ago, Great Falls High finished 13th (out of 14 teams) in scoring defense, allowing 35.2 points per game; against the pass, it ranked fourth overall, giving up 153.3 yards, but only edged Butte for the worst team against the run at 217.1 yards a contest.
Senior Jeff Legg (6-3, 298) will start at nose tackle. He played sparingly as a defensive tackle a year ago. He’s improved tremendously in the weight room, and the improvements have made him nearly unrecognizable when you consider where he was 18 months ago, Krahe said.
“He’s worked so hard in the weight room, hasn’t missed a day and he’s a 400-plus pound squatter now. It’s a pretty cool thing,” he said.
The defensive ends are seniors Erik Warner (6-3, 240) and Bret Britt (6-2, 275). Both played last season. They are dealt the difficult task of playing both ways in their final season with the Bison as both are offensive linemen as well.
“(Bret Britt) is just a big, physical kid that is strong and plays football hard,” he said. “He’s big.”
“Same thing,” Krahe said of Warner. “He’s very athletic at the offensive and defensive lines.”
Junior Tim Hanning (6-0, 211), who played outside linebacker a year ago, senior Brandon Mikkola (5-9, 215) and junior Jake Amo (6-1, 185) will provide depth.
“I’ve been impressed with what he’s done this summer,” he said of Amo.
On the outside, senior Steven Watson (6-0, 185) will be the Bison backer (weak side) and junior Luke Almos (6-1, 210) will be the Sam (strong side) linebacker. Juniors Jake Andersch, Steve Sullivan and Chase Short are the reserves.
“Steve’s (Watson) played some last year at the varsity level and did a good job for us,” Krahe said, “and then Luke (Almos), I’m expecting big things from him — he was on the sophomore team last year and really bought in to the weight room.”
There are three juniors vying for two spots for inside linebacker: August Woehler (5-11, 195), Bryce Brinkman (5-9, 185) and Dugan Mahoney (5-10, 200).
“They are fast,” he said of the trio. “They are not big but they like to play football and they have very fast wheels. So they are those inside backers and they’ve got to pack a punch and play very fast.”
Seniors Joey Greene (6-0, 175) and Chase Perry (5-9, 160) and juniors Cade Habel (5-10, 165) and Grant Hudspeth (5-10, 165) are battling for the two spots at safety. The group has the difficult job of replacing Kessler Leonard and Bostian Johnstone, who picked the opposing quarterback off six times as a senior.
“These guys are going to have to adjust on the fly and be ready to go by Game 1,” he said.
At corner, senior Riley Bail-Grover (5-10, 190), junior Kody Torgerson (6-0, 160), senior Nate Nava (5-9, 175) and junior Colby Friede (6-1, 170) will compete for two spots.
“Our secondary,” Krahe said, “even though we are going to have guys who are seniors, they are going to be new to the varsity game. What’s really nice is that these guys were able to develop and got a lot of playing time at the JV level and we had a full JV schedule, so guys like Joey Greene and Chase Perry, Riley Bail-Grover, Nate Nava, all of those guys got a ton of reps and even though they are new to the varsity, they are not new to playing their position.”
Junior Logan Martin, senior Casey Klaue and sophomore Talon Grey are competing for the kicking and punting responsibilities.
Matt Krahe will be the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach. Dan Brady will coach the defensive line, as will Zach Ringler. Jerry Schmitz will oversee the secondary, and Eric Stoverud, who comes over from CMR where he coached the sophomores for the last three years, will coach outside linebackers. Chris Napierala remains the offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach, and Bill Polk will head the wide receivers. The running backs coach is Rob Schulte, and the offensive line is directed by Brian Sullivan.
— By Steve Schreck, who covers high school sports for the Tribune and can be reached at 791-1492 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GFTribSSchreck