By EVAN MCCULLERS
The Daily Inter Lake
The industrial-sized steel door to the Flathead locker room swung open, eliciting cheers from the parents, friends and fans waiting outside.
Player after player trickled back out into the cold, but no seniors were among them.
The door closed again.
Nearly 25 minutes later, the door reopened, and the seniors emerged.
One by one, they traversed the frozen concrete, walked down three steps and sauntered across the snow-covered track to make their way back onto the turf at Legends Stadium.
Each of them, all 24, needed one more moment.
Flathead saw its football season come to an end on a frigid Friday night in a 24-10 loss to Helena Capital in the first round of the Class AA playoffs.
For the 24 seniors, the first class fourth-year head coach Kyle Samson has overseen throughout their high school careers, it also marked the end of a career, one filled with a whirlwind mix of jubilation, despair and, in the end, history.
“I just told them I love them,” Samson said. “They’re so special to me.
“They just represent what’s good about kids these days, and I can’t thank them enough for what they did for me, for this program and for this school. I love them to death.”
Three turnovers were enough to do in the Braves (6-4), who hosted their first playoff game since 2005.
A Taylor Morton interception on the second play of the game led to a 16-yard Seth Schneider touchdown run for Capital (7-4), and Bruins’ running back Alec McVey-Touchette capitalized on a Blake Counts fumble with an 18-yard scamper in the fourth quarter that padded the visitors’ lead.
The 14 points scored off Flathead’s turnovers were, quite literally, the difference in the game.
“Sometimes you have some bad plays,” Samson said. “You’ve got to get the turnover battle, and we didn’t.”
Counts tied the game for the Braves in the first quarter with an 80-yard touchdown run after Capital’s early score.
The junior running back imposed his will on the Bruins in the first half, bouncing off and bowling over defenders for 164 yards on just 13 carries. Counts finished with 25 carries for 221 yards, his career-best total by more than 50 yards.
“He did a great job, and our offensive line did a tremendous job blocking for him,” Samson said. “He just did what he’s done all year.”
Count’s 80-yard run, by far his longest of the season, was the only time Flathead found the end zone.
Braves’ kicker Alex Coulter added three points with a 35-yard field goal to give Flathead a 10-7 halftime lead, but the Bruins slowly, but methodically, chipped away at the deficit in the second half.
Capital, which scored 17 unanswered points to close the game, kept the ball on the ground for nearly the entirety of the contest, completing only two passes for six yards. The running game by itself did enough to earn the team a spot in the state semifinals.
The Bruins rushed for 325 yards to Flathead’s 275. Schneider led a trio of rushers over 80 yards with 125 yards on 18 carries.
The Braves, like their opponents, elected to keep the ball on the ground most of the time in the sloppy conditions.
Morton attempted just eight passes and completed only three for 62 yards. Capital intercepted him twice, and the second pick crushed any hope the Braves might have had of overcoming a two-touchdown deficit with just under four minutes remaining.
“We kind of knew that, that we were going to have to run the ball,” Samson said.
“We did a good job doing it. It was the same for both teams, so credit them. Capital did a good job. We didn’t come out on the right end, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort.”
It was a season full of milestones for Flathead.
The Braves defeated Glacier and Bozeman for the first time since 2008 and beat Helena for the first time since 2005.
They hosted a playoff game for the first time in over a decade and were undefeated at home for the first time since at least 2001.
Only one box was left unchecked. The Braves once again went without a playoff win, extending the school’s winless streak in the postseason to 11 years.
“I’m just so proud of our kids,” Samson said.
“They fought all year, all night. It’s tough to see it all end.”
As the night continued to cool, the 24 seniors slowly walked to the south end of the field, pausing for a few moments near midfield to reflect on their careers.
Some took a knee. Others embraced. Nearly all shed a tear.
Then they turned around, made their way back across the snowy track and up the frozen stairs and, one by one, disappeared into the night.
Capital 7 0 3 14 — 24
Flathead 7 3 0 0 — 10
C — Seth Schneider 16 run (Brian Buschini kick), 11:01
F — Blake Counts 80 run (Alex Coulter kick), 4:41
F — Coulter 35 field goal, 6:32
C — Buschini 37 field goal, 9:01
C — Matt McGinley 40 run (Buschini kick), 8:50
C — Alec McVey-Touchette (Buschini kick), 6:57
First Downs 16 13
Rushes-Yards 40-325 39-275
Passing Yards 6 62
Comp-Att-Int 2-7-0 3-8-2
Total Plays-Yards 47-331 47-337
Punts-Yards 3-39.0 3-28.0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 12-80 15-48
RUSHING — Capital, Seth Schneider 18-125, Matt McGinley 9-99, Alec McVey-Touchette 7-83, Brennan Casey 2-8. Flathead, Blake Counts 25-221, Taylor Morton 6-24, Jaden MacNeil 5-15, Jonathan Baker 3-15.
PASSING — Capital, Matt McGinley 1-1-0-6, Bridger Grovom 1-5-0-0. Flathead, Taylor Morton 3-8-2-62.
RECEIVING — Capital, Seth Schneider 2-6. Flathead, Jonathan Baker 2-45, Austin Demars 1-17.