This year’s conference realignment has forever changed the competitive dynamics of Class C 8-man football.
Gone are the days of “exhibition games” that don’t necessarily have heavy playoff implications. Now every game counts and every win and loss will have playoff implications.
The Charlo Vikings have experienced this dramatic change in their early portion of the schedule. Last season, the Vikings began the season with two non-conference victories against Seeley-Swan and Clark Fork. Charlo defeated Seeley 52-6 and Superior-Alberton 52-14 before getting four consecutive conference victories against Arlee 56-6, St. Ignatius 52-14, Plains 50-14 and Troy 66-8. They then suffered their only regular season loss 46-28 at the hands of Flint Creek.
Last season’s loss to Flint Creek was a big one. The Vikings, who finished second in the Montana High School Association Class C state championship with a 30-22 loss to Ennis at the end of 2016, were forced to play Forsyth, a team they lost to 50-32 on the road.
Flint Creek’s victory over Charlo positioned them to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs and put them in a prime position to eventually capture the championship with a 44-30 victory over Forsyth, the team that eliminated Charlo from the playoffs in the quarterfinals.
This year, Charlo will travel to Flint Creek, and though it is only week three, the scenario is virtually the same. The Vikings will travel to Phillisburg to play Flint Creek Friday night at 7 p.m. at Flint Creek’s Stadium.
“There are a lot of similarities between last year’s (game) and this year,” Vikings’ coach Mike Krahn said. “This year’s game (against Flint Creek) has the same feel and I think Flint Creek is going to be dangerous whoever they play this season.”
During the preseason, the coaches were polled and asked who they thought was going to win the Western C conference. They definitively chose Flint Creek as the No. 1 ranked team and the Charlo Vikings to finish second in the conference.
No doubt the consensus is that both teams will make an impact in the Class C 8-man playoffs in Nov. This game will likely dictate not only seeding but most likely who will be in position to secure home field advantage throughout the state playoffs.
The loser of this game will also most likely have to play and win playoff games on the road in Montana. A football road trip in Montana could mean a potential 12-hour bus ride, something that Krahn hopes to his team can avoid with a win over Flint Creek.
“What ends up happening if they finish first and we finish second, we’ll end up being on the opposite ends of the bracket and we could match up later down the road,” Krahn said. “We are hoping, after we lost that game last year, that we would end up seeing them in the state championship. That could be the same situation early in the season and (this game) has the same feel to it.”
This game could also dictate the remainder of the season for both Charlo and Flint Creek.
“Right now, them and us (in the conference) are the only teams that are 2-0 and if we win this game, that puts us in a position to win the conference,” Krahn said. “The winner of this game will have the tiebreaker and could have implications on a playoff game. Whoever loses could have to take a 12-hour bus ride versus sleeping in your own bed if you get home field.”
Krahn explained the difficulties of traveling. Last year, during their trip to Forsyth, the Vikings’ bus broke down, an unexpected event that further complicated their 7 hour, 13 minute road trip.
“Going on the road and winning statistically does not happen,” Krahn said. “Usually the home team has the advantage. You want to be playing at home if at all possible. Two-day trips and traveling just get you out of your rhythm. Practices are different and it makes it difficult. The travel part is something that is a little different and tough to experience.”
If the Vikings can come away with a victory over Flint-Creek, Krahn said he feels good about heading into the second half portion of the schedule after the Vikings have already defeated conference rivals Arlee 36-16 and Plains 42-6 in the two conference openers.
“I think we are in a really tough front-loaded schedule,” Krahn said. “If we can get through the next two games, which will be really tough games, you are setting yourself up for having a tie-breaker advantage. If we are able to knock off Flint Creek, most likely they aren’t going to lose another game. That is one less head to head and gives us a little wiggle room (moving forward).”
Flint Creek brought the majority of their players from last year’s Class C 8-man state championship football team back, and now a more experienced roster should only enhance their chances of repeating as champions.
One major weapon they’ll have is Jaxon Lee, who was a transfer student that helped the team’s passing game significantly last season. This year, the senior, who hurt Charlo in so many ways last year, will dictate the success of the game one way or another for both teams.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to shut him down but you’ll just limit his touches and big plays, and hope if they are going to pass the ball that you get a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Krahn said. “Jaxon is just really difficult to stop and and by pressuring the quarterback, it is helpful.”
Quarterback Kade Cutler is a junior and understand the Flint Creek system pretty well. One reason why is his father is Flint Creek’s coach Mike Cutler.
“We are hoping to try to rattle him a little bit but he is a coach’s son, is well-coached and really knows football,” Krahn said.
The Vikings were able to generate a significant pass rush against their rivals Arlee in the second half, who was missing four starters because of injury, and that allowed them to capture a 36-16 victory after only leading Arlee 22-16 at halftime.
The Vikings’ all-state caliber center Brock Tomlin will be week to week and Bridger Foust broke his wrist during the Arlee-Charlo game.
Charlo was able to adjust missing four starters in the second half and pitched a shutout.
“Flint Creek has so many weapons (on offense) and if you double up on someone, you have to play pretty legit,” Krahn said. “You have to watch both the run and the pass. That makes playing them so difficult.”