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COLUMN: Crosstown foes start football anew

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | August 25, 2021 8:40 PM

There’s a new coach on one side of town, the dean of AA football coaches on the other, and Alex Cummings and Grady Bennett have something in common: They’re going to be starting a passel of sophomores.

As the season gets going Friday — Belgrade plays Glacier at Legends Stadium, Flathead plays Billings Skyview on the road — neither team will roll out a bunch of experienced gridders.

Flathead has four starters back on offense and five on defense; for Glacier the numbers are four and two.

“It’s kind of how high school works,” Bennett said Tuesday, after practice wound down for the Wolfpack. “That’s the challenge of coaching: Every year is so different and every class is different.

“Here we have this unbelievable, maybe best running back ever (Jake Rendina) and yet we’re going to start with a really young offensive line. They’re going to have to grow up, obviously.”

These newcomers are sophomores Henry Sellards and Rylan Heil and freshman Ben Winters; over at Flathead, Cummings, a long-time assistant turned first-year head coach, has sophomore Michael Owens penciled in at center.

“That’s a big ask,” Cummings said. “He’s on the smaller side as far as offensive lineman go. There’s definitely going to be some growing pains up front.”

Junior Kayden Berkey and senior Logan Lang will fortify that line, but Flathead’s roster shows 41 sophomores out of 78 players. Bennett, now in his 19th year as a AA coach, including the first three at Flathead, lists 12 sophomores among 51 players on his varsity roster. Smaller ratio, but those youngsters are going to play.

Which is only part of the intrigue this weekend, including a marquee matchup at Washington-Grizzly Stadium between defending champion Missoula Sentinel and the team it beat for the 2020 title, Billings West.

Another example: Matt Upham, Flathead’s coach the past two seasons, is coaching cornerbacks and teaching at Glacier this year. He stepped down after the Braves’ 0-7 campaign last fall.

“He’s a great coach, man,” Bennett said. “I thought, ‘I at least have to give him a call.’ I know he was thinking about returning to Helena, but I told him, ‘If you want to stay here, I would hire you on my staff immediately.’

“Thankfully it worked out for both of us, because he is a great add.”

“The hard part about last year is you lose your head coach and your defensive coordinator,” said Cummings, an assistant under Kyle Samson for four years and then Upham for two. He brought aboard former MSU-Northern teammate Nick Luoma to run his defense.

Since Kalispell went to two AA schools in 2006, Glacier, the newcomer, has built the better resume with six semifinal appearances, three runs to the title game and one championship (2014). Flathead, though, had its moments, including a surprising surge into the 2018 championship, where the Braves lost narrowly to West.

On Oct. 15 the squads will battle for the city title. Cummings will try to draw on his experience with Samson, who before Flathead was the offensive coordinator at Northern while Cummings played offensive line.

It could be the Battle of Tailback Highs: Rendina heads into his senior season with 2,474 career rushing yards, and Cummings plainly asserts he prefers to run the ball and clock.

“The biggest question right now is how the O-line and D-line is going to do, how they stack up,” Cummings said. “That’s where we have to prove ourselves and they’re working their butts off right now.”

If all those big men do the job, Rendina’s won’t be the only familiar name around here. From Henshaw (Flathead’s Kaden) to Goicoechea (Glacier’s Kash), from Thompson (Anders) to Tomason (Wyatt), quite a few of these backs could highlight these coming Friday nights.

Sports reporter Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com.