The game could only be more important if it were being played next week.
Instead, because of how the Class AA football playoff bracket came together, Bozeman and Gallatin will have to settle for a semifinal matchup where the winner will play for a state championship and the loser sees its season come to an end.
The Hawks have won each of the three regular season meetings against the Raptors since the new school opened. That includes a 38-14 triumph on Oct. 14. But the crosstown rivalry gets a bonus chapter this season with the teams’ first playoff matchup.
Bozeman defeated Kalispell Glacier 31-23 last Friday in the quarterfinals to reach this point. Earlier that day, the Raptors earned a 24-21 seeded upset against Helena High on the road.
At 7 p.m. Friday at Van Winkle Stadium, they meet for the second time in a month with a whole lot more at stake. But both sides recognize they cannot get caught up in the rivalry.
“Yeah, it’s Gallatin, but we would be preparing the same way as if it was Helena High,” Hawks head coach Levi Wesche said. “This is our opportunity to get to the state championship game. No matter who we’re going to play, we’re going to do this the right way.”
For Bozeman, the Eastern AA’s top seed, that means learning from the win against Glacier. The Hawks were heavily penalized in that contest, and the final margin doesn’t actually account for how in-control Bozeman’s defense was for much of the game. That kind of a mini-scare has been enough for the Hawks to recalibrate its mindset.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas,” said junior Rocky Lencioni, who caught two touchdowns against the Wolfpack. “We definitely let up a little bit in that fourth quarter, but we came out strong and that’s a huge focus this week.”
As it should be, especially considering that Gallatin, the Eastern AA’s No. 3 seed, turned the ball over three times in the first half against Helena High and then didn’t allow the Bengals to score following any of them. It was another example in a season full of them of Gallatin finding a way to win in a tight game.
“It was definitely a rollercoaster ride, but I think all those close games that we’ve been in all year, that experience helped us out,” Raptors head coach Hunter Chandler said. “Major ups and major downs, but we played four quarters and it turned out in our favor.”
Wesche said the Hawks can learn a lot from that Gallatin outcome.
“If you let them turn the ball over three times and you can’t make anything out of it, it makes them extremely dangerous,” he said. “They are a very gritty group. They know how to play in close football games. I think they do a good job of managing the clock and managing possessions. Defensively, they’re extremely difficult to move the football on. Offensively, they’re very explosive. They can score from anywhere on the field. They proved that against Helena High.”
Indeed, after regaining the ball with 2 minutes, 17 seconds to play against Helena, the Raptors had one timeout and were staring at a four-point deficit while standing on their own 26-yard line. Senior quarterback Garrett Dahlke first found senior receiver Austin Cooper for a 54-yard gain. Shortly after, Dahlke passed to junior receiver Quinn Clark for a 20-yard go-ahead touchdown.
The win was secured for good when defensive back Kyler Wolfgang intercepted a pass by Helena’s Carter Kraft. It was a huge moment for the junior who missed a pair of games earlier in the season with a shoulder injury and had slowly been eased back into action. Wolfgang was in the right place at the right time in one of the biggest moments of the season.
“My instinct was ‘Holy crap, I just caught the ball,’” Wolfgang said, remembering the sequence. “And then I tried to run, I ran like 10 yards, and then all my teammates were yelling to get down, so I just slid because I didn’t want to fumble or anything like that. It was an awesome moment with my teammates.”
For Wolfgang to make such an important play was no surprise to Chandler.
“He’s a big-time leader for us,” he said. “Not the biggest kid in the world, but man, is he tough. He knows our defense really well, communicates, makes plays. He’s a big tone-setter for us. To have him back has been a major boost in the arm.”
Gallatin has now won three games in a row — the season finale against Billings Skyview and a pair of playoff games — since losing to Bozeman. Wolfgang said the Raptors are anticipating a better game against the Hawks this time around.
“I think it could be a good opportunity for us,” he said. “I think a lot of guys, especially all the seniors, are looking forward to another chance to show we can compete. I think all of us are excited and looking forward to the opportunity in a big game like that.”
The “opportunity” is the needle in the crosstown haystack. Both teams will have to put aside the emotions that come with playing their rival and know that getting to next week is the ultimate prize.
“We’re not playing this for Gallatin,” Bozeman senior receiver/defensive back Avery Allen said. “We’re playing this to get to the state championship game, the end goal.”
Lencioni said the Hawks will have to “stay grounded” and not get too amped up, which he recognizes might be difficult to do.
“Obviously, the first crosstown, there’s a lot of build up for it,” he said, “and now this one, it’s twice that, especially with a chance to go to the championship game on the line.”