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Highways and history: Big Horns breakthrough in Class C football

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The LPHS Big Horns showed grit and toughness in knocking off then-No. 6 Cascade High School earlier this season. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS

The Big Horns could drive all the way to Calgary in about the same amount of time it’ll take to travel to Culbertson for their first round game in Montana’s 8-man football playoffs this weekend.

Welcome to Class C.

The Lone Peak High School football team will bus nearly 1,000 miles—493 miles each way to be exact—for its postseason game against Culbertson, which sits between Glendive and Plentywood in northeast Montana. If LPHS were to make a state title run, the windshield miles will be both imposing to consider and impressive to remember.

Those highway traverses are what unite some of Class C’s greatest football dynasties.

Lone Peak, which opened in 2009 and started playing 8-man ball in 2017, is a rarity in modern-day Class C. More than half of Montana’s high schools have less than 130 students; most Class C schools are forced to wonder whether high school students might become a non-renewable resource. Lone Peak, on the flip side, had 112 students last year but is growing as Big Sky continues to boom and is set to “move up” to Class B next year. LPHS will continue to compete in 8-man football despite the reclassification.

Junior quarterback Juliusz Shipman looks downfield in a September matchup against the Cascade Badgers. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Most of Class C’s storied football programs have had to figure out a way to keep competing as enrollment declines. Maybe the best example of the impossible alliances forged by these hard choices is that of Highwood and Geraldine. What other name could the co-op football team go by than the Rivals?

Between 1992 and 2008, Highwood won 11 state titles in 8-man ball. That’s the most in small-school history and the fifth-most ever across all classifications in the state of Montana. Butte High (15), Great Falls C.M. Russell (13), Great Falls High (12) and Helena Capital—all from Class AA—are the only schools with more football banners than Highwood.

Geraldine won five 8-man championships—1974, 1989, 1997, 2001 and 2003. Highwood and Geraldine are only 45 minutes apart, so when student numbers started to dwindle, the old adversaries had to rally together. After playing each other in five state title games, the newly formed co-op won its first state 6-man title in 2013 and repeated the next season.

Dynasties run deep in Montana Class C football, particularly since the classification separated into 8-man and 6-man classifications starting in 1982. The Montana High School Association first revived Class C football in 1973 after an initial run from 1949-1952.

Coincidentally, during that inaugural ‘73 season, Bozeman Rosary High defeated in the title game the same Culbertson squad that hosts Lone Peak on Saturday. Today, Culbertson boasts 753 residents, which is just 68 less folks than in 1973 when Class C was revived.

The first great 8-man dynasty of the 21st century came in the form of Chase Reynolds’ Drummond Trojans. Reynolds—a record-setting running back who ran for the second-most career yards in state history (Jordan Nees, of Hobson Moore/Judith Gap, surpassed Reynolds’ career mark by seven yards in 2018)—went on to become the all-time leading rusher in the storied history of the University of Montana Grizzlies before playing several years in the NFL. Reynolds and a handful of other Division I players helped Drummond go undefeated three years in a row between 2003 and 2005.

Of the five schools moving from Class C to Class B next year—all of which will continue playing 8-man—all but the Big Horns have played for state titles and all but LPHS and Darby have won at least one. Ennis has four titles, Superior has two and Fairview has one.

Senior Pierce Farr tracks down a Simms High runner. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Lone Peak is something of an anomaly. Big Sky boasts about 3,500 people, which is more than three times as many as Fairview and almost 30 times the size of Class C towns like Reed Point or Melstone or Sunburst.

To see the shifting landscape and just how unusual Lone Peak’s growth is from its Class C competitors, look no further than Drummond. The ranching cowboy town boasts 272 residents these days. And to maintain its football tradition, the Trojan football team had to rally up with archrival Phillipsburg to form the Flint Creek Titans.

The co-op has been wildly successful, winning state titles in 2017, 2018 and 2020 under former head coach Mike Cutler. Flint Creek is undefeated this year again and a favorite again to win the state crown.

Lone Peak will likely never have to navigate forming a football co-op, nor how to maintain longstanding tradition against newly formed amalgamations of old rivals.

But this season has seen the Big Horns add another layer on their own growing football tradition. They notched a victory against then-No. 6 ranked Cascade High on the way to a top 10 position of their own. They’ve consistently had strong performances against traditional powerhouses, never once getting “out-athleted,” as head coach Dustin Shipman said earlier in the year.

They’re making the program’s second playoff run. The first was in 2017 and ended at the hands of Flint Creek.

This year’s team only has one senior, so who knows what the future holds for this squad.

“They wanna win football games,” Shipman told EBS. “They love to represent their school and they love to represent their community.”

Junior George Helms hauls in a one-handed interception against Sheridan High School. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

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