HOT SPRINGS — The excitement in the air due to the possibility of claiming a state football championship is different than regular season games, and even different compared to previous playoff games. Coaches and players are more precise when
it comes to their preparation, while fans that have followed the prep team all season long have a reason to cheer even louder than they have all season long.
Football takes center stage at the championship level, and deservingly so.
The majority of athletes across the country wont ever experience what it means to be crowned a state champion, while most can only dream of what it feels like to be one of the last two teams standing.
As a journalist, the experience is just as special to me as I am sure it was the next guy, and it was a privilege to get to cover the Big Sandy Pioneers on their road to the championship game this season.
The only thing that would have made this season better was if I got to watch the Pioneers win that Class C Six-Man football trophy that is so highly sought after. The Chinook Sugarbeeters gave me a look at what it was like to host and win a state title in 2010. And as hard as it was to watch the Pioneers fall 77-0 to Hot Springs on the road Saturday, I now have an inside look at what the state championship scene looks like on the road as well.
Hot Springs was not an easy place for the Pioneers to play on Saturday, but as an outsider looking in, it was an interesting road trip.
Big Sandy earned a playoff win over Lone Peak at home in the first round, a win over Westby/Grenora in North Dakota in the quarterfinals, and a win over Valier at home in the semifinals. I was able to cover the semifinal game in Big Sandy, and plenty of fans showed up to support their Pioneers, despite the windy, snowy, and extremely cold conditions. There were plenty of purple and gold banners, signs, and fans, but even that was far off in comparison to what went on in Hot Springs for the title game.
It was a long drive into Hot Springs from Havre, but I knew when I was getting close.
It was my first trip to the town that is basically in the middle of nowhere between Kalispell and Missoula, but the closer I got, the more I knew I was headed in the right direction. Savage Heat was everywhere. There were red flames painted on the road, I would say for about 10 miles leading to the field. There were also signs with messages like ‘The road to a state championship ends in Hot Springs’ that also stretched for miles along the highway.
I saw a pyramid of a half dozen hay bails (not the small rectangle ones, but the giant cylinder shaped ones) that was painted with red flames, accompanied by a small field filled with signs supporting the local team and players. Nearly every window I passed, whether it was a car, trailer, storefront, home or otherwise, had some sort of players name, number or message painted in it.
There were hundreds of fans wearing red and white flooding the home sideline the entire length of the field, and several rows back. And he surprisingly large Savage Heat turnout made the solid Pioneer fan following look bleak. It was clear this was a road game, and if that didn’t click on the way in, the large logo painted 10 yards wide at center field, and the massive two or three story high Savage Heat logo that was painted on the building behind the field made it clear by kickoff.
The Pioneers were a great team this season, but ask anybody, and they will tell you that it makes a world of difference whether or not you play at home or on the road. I think that is especially true in a game as big as the state title tilt.
And I am not saying the Pioneers would have come away with the win if they were playing in Big Sandy. But the Savage Heat played the best all-around football game I watched all year, but I think the Pioneers would have at least looked like the team I watched all season long in Big Sandy. Big Sandy has an explosive offense and a powerful defense, and the atmosphere the Savage Heat created played a role in limiting the Pioneers.
But I don’t want to take anything away from the Pioneers or Savage Heat, just note that this was a great season for the Pioneers, and great season for me to be able to cover the Six-Man powerhouse.
Their 10-2 record and spot in the title game resulted in their best season since 2003. And putting the heartbreaking loss aside, the toughness and pride the Pioneers showed at the end of Saturday’s game should make a great ending to the documentary film on Six-Man football the Pioneers have been the subject of all season long. In fact it should make for a great movie either way.