Editor’s Note: With the high school football season now over, we take a look back at the season that was for C.M. Russell High and also look forward to its future as far as expectations and players to look out for in the 2016 season.
The 2015 season was one of many peaks and valleys for the Rustlers.
Even though only three returning starters were back off a team that finished second to Kalispell Glacier for the 2014 state title, expectations were still high. With Andrew Grinde and Karl Tucker II back, they had to be.
The Rustlers began the season with a surprising home loss to Kalispell Flathead — the defeat didn’t look as bad later in the season with the Braves making it to the playoffs — and a switch was made.
With the offense looking out of sync, starting quarterback Karl Tucker II was moved back to his natural wide receiver position as virtual unknown junior Lane Jensen was thrust into the starting role.
“His quarterback adventure was short,” Russell head coach Gary Lowry said of Tucker II, “but it says a lot about him stepping up and doing that, accepting that role. It didn’t work out, but he knew what was best for the team, so he had no problem taking the quarterback role and then giving it up when he saw that might not be the best thing for the team. So I have a lot of respect for him doing that.”
Russell proceeded to win its next four games. Once lost, the offense scored 191 total points in those contests and, with more playmakers at different positions, the once-congested field spread wide open for its athletes to make plays. It made all the difference in the world, really.
But then it faced Helena Capital, Glacier, Billings Senior and Bozeman – all in consecutive weeks, three of which were on the road, and a once-promising season quickly turned into a crawl to the finish and the eighth spot in the postseason.
“We had three out of the top four teams on the road, so that didn’t help anything,” the second-year head coach said. “And we ran into a couple injuries here and there, but I’m not blaming it on that. We had our chances. We needed to play better. We didn’t play well against those good teams when we needed to, and it was just one of those things.”
After a convincing 58-31 win over Great Falls High in the final game of the regular season, Russell faced No. 1 Bozeman – the eventual state champions – on the road in round one.
Tailback Andrew Grinde, who missed about 10 consecutive quarters because of a shoulder injury, returned to the lineup, and the Rustlers were within one touchdown after three quarters. But Bozeman pulled away in the final minutes, winning 21-0, as Grinde sat out the second half in pain. Russell concluded the season at 5-6.
“I’ll remember these seniors, and I’ll remember them for what they did for us because they ended up battling back to get in the playoffs,” Lowry said. “That was a big thing for them this year because they could have cashed in the chips when they were down and lost five games … I was proud of the kids’ effort.”
Grinde, the 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year, set all kinds of records in his high school career. The Yale commit set school marks in all-purpose yards (6,387), rushing yards (4,477) and points (301). He rushed for 43 TDs and hauled in six more through the air. In an injury-marred senior season, he covered 1,072 yards on the ground for 10 TDs. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound halfback averaged six yards per carry.
Even with the missed games, Grinde, who also holds the school record for rushing yards in a single season at 2,180, now ranks second all-time in rushing yards for the state of Montana, behind only Fort Benton’s Brandon Utterback at 4,679. His 43 rushing TDs ranks him in a tie for sixth all-time, and his mark of 22 games of 100 yards rushing or more puts him in a four-way tie for first.
“He’s the best back we’ve ever had at CMR,” Lowry said.
Tucker II, meanwhile, now holds the top mark in career receptions at C.M. Russell High. His 130 receptions are two better than former great Jeff McElroy (1989-90).
The Montana State commit totaled 1,777 yards in receptions for 16 touchdowns, racked up 3,250 all-purpose yards and 208 points and scampered for 1,115 yards on the ground. While his production on the field stood out, Lowry complimented Tucker II, who caught 73 balls this season, for his dedication in other areas of the game, including his preparation and how he carried himself.
“He’s worked as hard as any kid in practice as a receiver,” Lowry said. “Everything he does. He runs his routes hard every time, and he’s trying to get better. He’s been a good role model for those younger kids, those younger receivers.”
Among the other key seniors lost to graduation are Dylan Sandefur, Noah Danielson, Trevor Pepin, Sean Morris and the McAllister triplets: Connor, who led the team in interceptions with three; Walker; and Patrick.
Lowry believes Danielson can play college football at a big-time school. Because he is so raw physically, it might take several years before his true value comes out, though.
The kicker Sandefur, who also played defensive back this season, set school records in field goals made (14), point after touchdowns (122) and longest field goal (46 yards).
“We’re going to miss Dylan Sandefur,” Lowry said. “When you have a kicker for three years, you take it for granted — and then all of the sudden you don’t have him.”
The McAllisters embodied what it means to be a Rustler, Lowry said.
“Those three are what CMR football players are,” he said. “They’re good kids, good students, they’ll do whatever’s best for the team on the field. They work hard every day in practice. They enjoy being out there.
“It’s a special thing for them to be out there and you can tell, the way their work ethic and how they handle themselves every day at practice. I’d take 100 of those kids every year. They’re what CMR football is. Their commitment, dedication and passion for playing are what we’re about.”
THE DEPARTURES are significant, but Lowry believes he has a good foundation in place for next season.
“Eight (starters) or up to 12 that have started one time or another,” he said of those coming back. “I think we have a good group of juniors coming back, and we’re going to miss the seniors, but I do think we have some good juniors coming back.”
The offensive line, which was inexperienced this past season, will be a veteran group, with names like Ryan Hannah, Adam Agamenoni, Brayden Ginnaty and Aaron Rucinsky expected to take that next step.
“I think the offensive line will be a strength if they commit themselves to the weight room,” Lowry said. “They have to get stronger and stay in shape, too. Can’t just be big, they still have to be able to run.”
Jensen, the quarterback, returns for his senior season, but his targets out wide are unproven, untested. Jensen threw for 1,798 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
Jake Horner, the younger brother of UM’s Josh Horner; James Olsen; Tyler Patrick and Cade Mares are expected to compete for playing time. Juniors Kyle Burn, Cade Jensen, Jake Wilkins — the younger brother of former Great Falls High quarterback Jordan Wilkins — and Jake Olsen could also play a factor.
“We’ll have some places to fill obviously, but I like where we start from,” Lowry said of his team.
Isaiah Chargois is dealt the difficult, almost impossible task of stepping in for Grinde. On defense, seasoned linebackers such as Daniel Bonilla, Alex Cunningham and Max Sechena are back. Cunningham led the team in tackles for a loss (6) this season, while Sechena had a team-best 68 tackles. In the secondary, Wyatt Bleskin and Xavier Pace “are going to be a handful back there.” They each had two interceptions in their junior seasons.
“As many as those kids that played in that playoff game against Bozeman,” Lowry said. “I think that was an important thing for them to see that and how that felt and what they need to do to get over the hump where we are and make another charge at a state championship. I think that helped those young kids that all played.”