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On fourth down with just over three minutes left, Bozeman was within 10 yards of the tying score and needed just two to keep the drive alive.

The Hawks, in a rematch with Billings West, were hoping to upset the Golden Bears in a battle between two Eastern AA powers. The Hawks were seeking to defend their state championship.

But Bozeman’s run was stopped short, and West took over possession and the game.

East No. 1-seeded Billings West (9-0) relied on a complete effort with contributions coming from its special teams and defense to hold onto a 24-17 win over East No. 3 Bozeman (6-3) in the Class AA semifinals on Friday in Billings.

West moved on to play West No. 1-seeded Missoula Sentinel in the Class AA title game on Nov. 20.

“(Bozeman’s seniors have) had a great legacy,” Hawks head coach Levi Wesche said previously. “I think they can walk away with their heads held high and know they left the program in better shape than they found it.”

The Hawks felt they didn’t play up to their potential the last time these teams faced each other. Bozeman was leading with less than six minutes remaining, but a quick scoring drive lifted the Golden Bears to the 23-19 win and the Eastern AA regular season title.

The Hawks had to settle for four field goals in that contest, and Wesche thought his team turned the ball over and committed penalties too often. Still, he felt the Hawks could correct these mistakes going into the playoffs.

He was correct. The Hawks started the postseason with a 61-14 blowout win over Great Falls CMR and then pulled off a 35-28 win on the road at West No. 2-seeded Helena.

Bozeman quarterback Jordan Jones didn’t feel he played as well as he could have against West earlier this season.

“Just adapt from what we didn’t do last time,” Jones said earlier this week.

Wesche recognized the Hawks would have to find a way to compete with a “really, really competitive football team.” Because they were so close in their last matchup, the Hawks were eager for a rematch.

The Hawks had even further motivation, though. They had been seeking to return to the title game since the offseason. They hoped to win their seventh state championship and fifth since 2010. They were now just a game away from reaching that point.

The game started 45 minutes late because Bozeman faced travel issues on the way to Billings due to high winds near Livingston. But the Hawks didn’t start off slowly.

Jones threw a 23-yard touchdown strike early in the first quarter to Tucker Macbeth. Jones rolled right and chucked the ball deep. Macbeth, being defended one-on-one, jumped over a West player in the end zone to haul it in.

Then the Golden Bears began to capitalize on Bozeman mistakes. West scored off of a Bozeman fumble with a Michael DeLeon 1-yard touchdown run. The Golden Bears later took the lead to start the second quarter after a drive deep into Bozeman territory stalled and concluded with a 21-yard Spencer Berger field goal.

A few minutes later, West turned a Hawks interception into another touchdown. DeLeon weaved around defenders for another scoring run from about 10 yards out, giving West a two-possession lead.

The Hawks responded with a methodical drive that relied on the ground game. But similar to their last contest, West prevented the Hawks from crossing the goal line. Bozeman settled for a 33-yard Elijah Eckles field goal. West went to halftime with a seven-point lead.

“Yeah, they’re really, really good,” Wesche previously said. “They’re never out of a game.”

Following intermission, the Hawks evened the score with another lengthy drive, this one taking up about eight minutes. With 20 seconds left in the third quarter, Jones drove forward from 1 yard out for the tying touchdown.

But that tie lasted just a few seconds. West’s Taco Dowler returned the following kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and a seven-point lead going into the final quarter.

Though the Hawks had opportunities to even the game back up, West held on.

“They don’t do anything poorly,” Wesche previously said of West. “They’re probably the most balanced team we’ve seen. Obviously a great challenge.”

Bozeman senior running back Jess Wattenbarger had loved how everyone on the team made key contributions this season. Coaches were teaching the right way, he believed.

“Everyone here are the coolest people, and they all work super hard,” Wattenbarger previously said. “They’re all hard workers. You can look up to everybody, and they’re all good role models and good people. It’s been great to witness all these amazing players every Friday.”

No matter the result, Jones said earlier this week his team was grateful to have a season at all. That was in jeopardy just a few months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones said he wouldn’t know what to do without the sport.

“I think that what makes us special is having that bond and trusting everybody,” Jones said of his team. “I know everybody trusts me, and I have all the trust in the world in all of them to make plays. I think that’s what makes us really special is that trust in each other.”

While Friday’s game may not have unfolded the way the Hawks hoped, Wesche didn’t think that should take away from what they accomplished.

He called this year’s senior class “one of the most successful if not the most successful class in Bozeman High School history.” This year marked the first time the Hawks made the Class AA semifinals three years in a row, and this year’s seniors were around for all of it.

“I hope they always know they always have a family,” Wesche said previously of Bozeman’s seniors. “Our brotherhood extends beyond just the white lines. We’re more than what happens during the season. And we’ll always be there for them. And the other thing I hope they take away is some life lessons about what it takes to be successful.”

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Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.