Charlo High School football coach Mike Krahn knows every single game is essentially a crucial playoff game.
Gone are the days when non-conference games are essentially exhibition games to get prepared for more significant games. Now, with the realignment of the conferences that essentially puts two powerhouse football teams like Charlo and Flint Creek in the same division, every single game can have a direct impact on playoff implications.
Charlo, like the rest of their conference foes, will try to be one of four teams that will gun for a postseason berth in a conference that includes Arlee, a team that was runner-up in the 2015 Class C 8-man football championship, Flint Creek, a team that captured the Class C 8-man football championship in 2017 and Plains, an up-and-coming team that qualified for the playoffs last season.
Charlo will also have Mission, a new class C 8-man squad that moved down from Class B 11-man and missed the playoffs by one game last season. Krahn already is aware there are no easy opponents or rest for his team this season.
“Last year, we had three non-conference games and you always wanted to win (those games) but you had a chance to work towards playing your best football and bring up another level (later in the season),” Krahn said.
The Vikings will begin their season on the road against conference opponent Plains, a team that Krahn isn’t taking lightly, Saturday at 7 p.m. Plains High School.
“We were picked second last year and Plains was picked third, and in all reality, if the season plays out like people expect it, then we are fighting for a playoff position within the first two weeks of the season,” Krahn said. “If you win, you own the tiebreaker over the team. If it comes down to conference records, it could get interesting.”
Because of the amplified intensity of each game, Krahn said he felt the conference realignment will eventually amplify rivalries within the conference.
“It is interesting to have to feel that atmosphere (in the first week),” Krahn said. “It will be the first of nine games, and you will look back at some of these early games and say ‘man I wish we would have won (earlier in the season) or I wish we would have won (a specific game) playing at home or traveling across the state. You can talk to your kids all you want, but non-conference games have less pressure but now all nine games count.”
Khahn said he realizes the newly formed schedule will be “grueling” for the kids and his coaching staff headed into the season.
“You don’t have the luxury of an out of conference match up but it’s fun to play the game and have fun playing football,” Krahn said. “When there are postseason implications, it brings everyone up on a whole different level. I think it is going to make those games fun and grueling as coaches. We (as coaches) are going to have to find ways to stay healthy and really have our kids prepared week in and week out.”
Vikings prepare for Horsemen
Charlo will get ready for its first conference game against Plains with the knowledge that they’ve improved significantly under second-year Horsemen coach Eddie Fultz.
Krahn and his coaching staff are familiar with Fultz, whose wife used to be a teacher at Charlo, and Krahn recognizes the significant contributions Fultz has brought to the Horsemen program.
“We are going to arrive in Plains on a Saturday and that is going to be a little warm,” Krahn said. “I am concerned that everyone is in the same boat and we will be closer to the fires. My main concern during the game is going to be the weather in all of Western Montana. This weather is considered unhealthy but we are hoping the skies will be cleared. There won’t be any cancellation or anything. The weather in Plains is just a little bit warmer and you have to deal with keeping your focus in a different atmosphere and a different field. We seem to travel pretty well and seem to band together. When you get on the bus, you start focusing and being like-minded. It’s like you are going on a business trip. When you are traveling, you have to really prepare yourself mentally to accomplish the task at hand.”
One major difference Fultz instilled during the offseason was getting his football players involved in track, a critical area of conditioning to get ready for a Class C 8-man football school.
“I think that is one of the things why you get excited about the track, regardless of what sport it is, because it is complementary to those that play football or basketball,” Krahn said. “Track is going to work on your speed and your movement, and it is going to make you a better athlete, plain and simple. You have to test yourself at the first track meet and everything is timed. That is one of those sports that really keeps you active and keeps you moving. For 8-man football in our conference, speed is wide open and working on your speed just makes you a better football player.”
Fultz may have learned how to develop a football program from being around Charlo’s football program in previous seasons.
“He was around watching and he’s been around all of us,” Krahn said. “Before he ever took the Plains job, he and his wife commuted from Plains to Charlo. One thing that makes Plains tough is their physicalness and their tackling is so much improved. They are really aggressive. They bought into that brand of football and to (Eddie’s style). He has just done a really good job.”
The Vikings, who are known more for their speed and not their size, will have a tough opponent on the front lines against Plains, Krahn said.
“I think the size of their line is probably one of their biggest assets and I know they have some skill players,” Krahn said. “Last year, they had a physical line that we played against and they were all really good size. They were really impressive and used their size to their advantage. I think we angle blocked, used our feet to get good position, stressed the lineup and utilized our motion to get them moving and that was really to our benefit. They are going to be tough in the first quarter but we have to get them running all over the field and use our speed to our advantage.”
Vikings boast of a top-notch weapon in Landers Smith
Perhaps this is a scary memo to Class C 8-man football coaches but Vikings quarterback Landers Smith is lean and in better shape than he was at the start of last season.
As Landers is now entering his third season as a full-time signal caller for the Vikes and getting multiple looks from several regional colleges interested in signing the 8-man star.
“The thing about Landers is that watching film from last year, Plains aggressively stuffed us and really rocked him but they didn’t get him wrapped up and he ended up changing directions and running 50 yards down the field,” Krahn said. “You have to make sure that you are getting a good wrap on him because he is fast enough to run by you and strong enough to break a tackle. When he really got loose, he had an outstanding game with our line and it just caught us by surprise. However, Plains is going to have an improved offensive line (this year) and they are going to be tougher than what we are expecting.”
Smith isn’t going to be alone and will have plenty of weapons at his deposal entering the 2018 season.
“Garrett Vaughan has shown improvement as a three-sport athlete, is a shifty type of kid and he really gets the ball and catches it on the run,” Krahn said. “Last year, he was on the line and wasn’t running. We had to put him on the line but now he is a good-sized kid that gets on the line and bangs a little.”
Another player that should help Landers is Tanner Guastad, who Krahn says has speed, is physical and should compliment Smith, which will allow Smith to move around to various positions to give teams different looks.
Vikes ready to win front-line battle
The game of football at every level has significantly changed.
Football used to be played mostly in the middle of the field but now 70-percent of the game is played on the perimeter, something that plays into Charlo, a team predicated on its speed rather than its traditional size.
“That plays into our hands a little bit,” Krahn said. “I think several times over the years, we lined up and played in the middle of the field. It is physical against physical and the evolution of the offense is using our speed to play and win the kind of game we have. If anything now, if you are big you have to be fast because there are athletes at every level on the field. If you can’t move, you aren’t going to do any damage.”
The last couple of years the offensive and defensive front have been question marks for Charlo but are not so much a worry this year as the Vikings have a total of 20 kids out for football.The depth should help Charlo moving forward in what Krahn anticipates will be a grueling nine-game schedule.
“I think we have to come with creative ways to practice and scrimmage,” Krahn said. “On Friday, we have to have live hits and that is something that we are going to have to work hard on to mentally prepare. We will have to find ways to do drill work and stay healthy because it is a long season and it’ll be competitive. You will have to find healing time and you will be planning on some adjustments.”