As Glacier won the Class AA football championship Friday at Legends Stadium in front of a standing-room only crowd bigger than the field had seen in nearly a decade, there was plenty of cheers and fireworks as the hometown team romped to a 56-19 victory.
There was also a collective sigh of relief.
This team had been close before. This city had been close before.
But, for 44 years, each close call was answered with a dial tone. Each opportunity slammed shut.
Nearly two generations were denied a state championship, despite competing as the largest school in the state for much of that time.
That drought didn’t hit anybody more than Glacier coach Grady Bennett, who has been involved in three state title games as an assistant or head coach in Kalispell, including 10 trips to the state semifinals in the last 15 years.
Getting close wasn’t the issue.
“You get there, self doubt starts to creep in,” Bennett said. “You start to wonder, can we ever get this done? You ask those questions. Can I as a head coach lead a program to that final step, that promised land?
“You examine everything you’re doing. You try to get better. I’m so proud of my coaches. They’re an incredible group.”
Glacier made no doubt about its win Friday, scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter to turn the game into a rout and the fourth quarter into a coronation.
Fireworks went off in the north end zone and seemingly the entire town flooded the field after the win. Many in the crowd were a part of the thousands of former players that endured the championship drought.
“All I keep saying is I can’t forget being a seventh grader (at Flathead’s 1980 championship game loss in Kalispell),” Bennett said.
“When that game started I was in the crowd hoping to watch a state championship come to Kalispell. It didn’t happen, it was an ugly night. I ended up in the back (of Legends Stadium) throwing the ball in the snow like most kids do.
“From that point on I played here, I came back and coached here for 24 years, the dream has always been to just bring a championship game back here, but obviously to try to win one.”
That relief was evident in the eyes of the players that burden fell on. This class of players had been one game away each year of their high school careers. They finished a few points short last season in Bozeman.
That weight gone, the wait over, the joy was evident.
“I’m incredibly happy,” senior safety Tucker Rauthe said. “It’s the best moment of my life. It makes me so happy to end my senior year like this.”
“This is the greatest experience of my life,” said senior Cain Boschee, who finished the game with two interceptions.
“It means the world to me,” senior Logan Jones said. “It’s amazing to have this. All these guys behind me, they’re my brothers and I love every single one of them with all my heart. There’s no one else I’d rather be here with.”
Even with the drought over, and many of his playmakers leaving to graduation, Bennett wasn’t ready to let Kalispell go another 44 years between titles.
“It’s really special for all the seniors to get on the field in the championship game and for a lot of young guys to get on the field,” Bennett said.
“So many of our young guys have played this year. We’ve had an incredible year, but our young guys have played almost five complete Class AA games because they were in so many third and fourth quarters. They’re gaining so much experience.
“Hopefully we can continue to roll.”