Mark Sulser is downplaying the fact that Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game is his final game as a high school football coach.
But Chad Newell is not.
“This game carries big meaning for me,” said Newell, Billings Senior’s all-time leading rusher who’s headed to Montana State. “It was an honor for me to play for Coach Sulser for four years in high school, and it means a lot to me that I’m playing for him in his last game in the Shrine Game.”
Sulser resigned last month after 14 seasons at Senior to become the assistant principal at Riverside Middle School. On Saturday, he says he’ll be focused not on himself, but on guiding the East team to a win.
“This game is about the kids, not me,” said Sulser after Thursday’s practice at Rocky Mountain College. “We’ve got a great bunch of kids here and a great group of coaches. Whether it was my first game, my 50th game or my last game, the main thing is getting the team prepared to win a game.”
The 65th annual East-West Shrine Game will be played Saturday in Great Falls. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Newell is part of a big contingent of local players who will do their best to send Sulser out a winner.
Newell, who will start at running back, will be joined in the backfield by quarterback Brady Gustafson and receiver Jayc Van Zee of West, receiver Ryan Burke of Central, receiver John Daubert of Senior and running back/backup quarterback Dylan Kramer of Laurel.
Keeping with the local theme, the East offense is being led by Sulser and West offensive coordinator Doug Van Zee, along with Malta assistant Tad Schye.
“It’s a lot of fun having all these local kids,” said Sulser. “Mostly because they’re so talented, and they’re all good friends. We’ve got a lot of weapons to work with, that’s for sure.
“With these kids, we’ve got versatility to use pieces of the Senior offense, West offense and Malta offense, and we’ll use them all.”
Gustafson, who’s headed to the University of Montana along with Burke — the two will be roommates this fall — said this week has been a continuation of the week many of the players spent together last month on the Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl team.
“It’s fun hanging out with these guys,” said Gustafson, who finished as West’s all-time leader in passing yards. “I know all the Billings guys really well, and we all created a lot of friendships with guys from all over the state during Badlands Bowl week.”
As far as running the East offense, Gustafson said he’s having a blast.
“It took a couple of days to polish things up, but we’re clicking really good now,” he said. “The offense the coaches have put together is really easy to run, and they’ve put in plays to take advantage of all the different weapons we have.”
One of those weapons is Burke, who hooked up with his soon-to-be college roommate on a 44-yard touchdown pass in Montana’s 27-15 win over North Dakota in the Badlands Bowl. Burke, who caught nine passes for 124 yards and two TDs in that game, agreed that the camaraderie is the most enjoyable part of the all-star experience.
“It’s cool to play with guys from all the different classes, from AA to 6-Man,” he said. “They’re all great players and they bring different things to the team.
“And it’s fun having so many Billings guys. We all know each other and we all get along … it’s fun to put the whole rivalry thing from high school aside and be on the same team.”
Van Zee and Burke both pointed out that the East offense begins with the leadership and passing ability of Gustafson.
“It definitely starts with Brady,” said Van Zee, who’s headed to Rocky Mountain College. “As a receiver, there’s no better guy to have throwing the ball. His timing and his accuracy are unbelievable. We were clicking right away from the first practice this week ... I think it’s pretty much impossible for a receiver to not click with Brady.
“We’ve got the potential to be explosive, and our defense has looked great in practice this week. I know the West has a lot of talent over there, too, so it should be a good one.”
Other local players on the East roster include Pat Barnett and Jordan Brusio of West, Trevor Sparboe and Jon Hagstrom of Senior, Shane Walk of Skyview, Grady Holt-Seavy of Central and Austin Boucher of Laurel.
NOTES: The East leads the all-time series, 35-26. The West won last year’s game in Laurel, 24-3. … Players and coaches from both teams will attend a meet & greet that is open to the public today from 1-4 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. … Great Falls hosted the Shrine Game for the first 62 years of its existence. Beginning in 2010, the game was put on a three-city rotation including Butte, Laurel and Great Falls. ... The game will be broadcast on KPAX tv beginning at 6:30 pm.