By EVAN MCCULLERS
The Daily Inter Lake
It’s been said that championships can’t be won early in the season, but they can be lost.
That’s certainly the case in Montana Class AA football, where a string of early-season losses can prove costly down the road, even if the team turns its season around later in the year.
Flathead and Billings West are two teams attempting to avoid such a fate, and they’ll face off at 4 p.m. today in Billings in an early matchup with potential playoff ramifications.
“Every week is so important because there’s such good teams in AA,” Flathead head coach Kyle Samson said. “It’s a huge game for our program just being on the road and trying to earn a big road win.
“It’s a huge challenge for our team, going across the state against a very good team, but we’re excited about it.”
Flathead enters the game 1-1, having suffered its first loss of the season last week at Helena Capital, the No. 2 team in the state.
Though the final score was not what they’d hoped for, there were bright spots for the Braves in the game that they’ve attempted to build on this week.
Senior quarterback Taylor Morton threw for a career-high 303 yards, and the offense had just one turnover, down from three in a Week 1 win over Butte. The defense came up with key stops late in the game to give the offense a shot at a game-winning drive. Overall, Samson thought his team played three solid quarters but was doomed by the third quarter.
“We took a lot of positives from it, and we learned a lot of things about our team, as well, that we’ve got to get corrected and shored up,” Samson said of the Capital game. “But any time you come off a loss, and us being 1-1, I think it’s huge the way we respond the next week.”
Flathead will look to do so with a bang against West, which has slipped to an 0-2 start.
That record could be slightly deceiving, however, given the losses have come against two of the four 2-0 teams left in AA — Missoula Big Sky and Bozeman.
“We’re definitely not coming in here thinking we’re playing a team that hasn’t won a game,” Samson said. “We’re fully expecting a heck of a challenge, heck of a battle. By no means are we talking about their record, because I don’t think that represents who they are. They’re a very good football team.”
Today’s matchup will mark the first time Flathead has faced West since the first round of the 2011 playoffs, a 39-7 loss for the Braves.
But that game came long before Samson, let alone all of his players, donned the orange and black, and the unusual nature of preparing for a team they haven’t faced has added even more intrigue to an early-season game that already doesn’t lack it.
“The kids are excited to go out there,” Samson said. “I think it brings some challenges with just the unfamiliarity of the situation, but at the same time, I think it’s an exciting thing to go out and compete against a team you usually don’t play.
“The film’s kind of what we have to go off of, and at the same time, I think you’ve just got to be able to make adjustments as the game goes.”
The ability to adjust on the fly was another positive Samson took from the Capital loss, and he hopes it will pay dividends in the win column this week.
“I thought that our players and especially our assistant coaches did a great job of making some adjustments in that game,” he said. “I thought they did the same thing in that Butte game. I’ve got a heck of a staff that’s working with me.”
Flathead, which was unable to practice outdoors this week due to poor air quality in the Flathead Valley, will also be making its longest road trip since November 2015, when the Braves knocked off Billings Senior on the road.
Samson and his team stopped for a final pregame practice at Montana State’s Bobcat Stadium on Thursday afternoon and spent the night in Bozeman last night to attempt to offset the effects of the nearly 8-hour trip, and the fourth-year coach doesn’t anticipate travel being a factor.
Instead, he wants his team’s focus on a bounce-back win, one that would prevent the start of an early-season slide that could haunt the Braves in November — when championships can be won.
“The biggest thing is we have great senior leadership,” Samson said. “They understand that it’s a business trip. We’re going down there to win a game. We’ve had some fun (Thursday), but (Friday), it’ll be a different intensity level.
“We’re taking this long trip for one reason, and that’s to go down there and try to earn a win.”