It was a new-look year for the Northwestern A football conference a season ago, with Frenchtown moving in from the Southwestern A and a lot of underclassmen on every team gaining on-field experience.
Polson head coach Scott Wilson believes the experience that teams gained last year will add even more parity to the league.
“Most of the teams last season were starting a lot of young kids and now that they have that year of experience, it’s going to make our league a lot tougher,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s squad took first in the conference last year, and were selected by the Northwestern A coaches to do the same this season even though they lost 11 starters to graduation.
The Pirates went undefeated in the regular season a year ago, putting up almost 40 points per game with an iron-curtain defense that only allowed six points per contest.
However, Polson’s unblemished regular season was soured by a playoff loss to Miles City in the quarterfinals.
Wilson said that while this year’s team might not have the same strengths as last season, he is confident in its ability to get things done.
“It’s hard to say we’re going to be able to put up the kind of numbers as last year because it really was a special season,” Wilson said. “But we have a lot of players who were able to gain experience last year, especially on defense.”
The Pirates lost three quarters of its defensive backfield, but bring back senior Will Davey, who earned all-state honors at strong safety last season.
Davey, who is also a running back, is the only returning skill player on the Pirates’ offense.
Wilson said he also plans to give significant carries to seniors Beau Mills and Taylor Pitts, who primarily played defense last season.
“We don’t have as much speed on offense as we did last year, but we’ve got some up-field, hard-nosed runners in Beau Mills and Taylor Pitts and they bring a look to our offense,” Wilson said.
Polson’s biggest strength might be in the trenches, where it has three returning all-state players in Riley Sampson, Eric Williamson and Dan LaFranier.
Wilson said what impresses him the most about this group of linemen is that they are not only big bodies, but they are great athletes as well.
“All three are multiple-sport athletes that move very well for their size,” Wilson said. “They have great feet and quickness that allows them to get into great position on a consistent basis.”
The Pirates are still without a definitive starter at quarterback, with juniors Brady Hislop and Andrew Weltz battling to replace three-time all-state signal caller Vince DiGiallonardo.
Wilson said the decision will be made after the team’s final scrimmage on Friday.
The Libby Loggers took second in the league last year and are in the same slot in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Coach Neil Fuller is happy with his team’s passing ability on offense, led by quarterback Jared Winslow.
“Jared does a great job leading us because he has a great attitude and is very athletic,” Fuller said. “We’ve looked great in camp passing the ball but we’re working hard to achieve a balance on offense.”
Libby features a stable of four running backs that will carry the ball this season, led by DJ Maefau and Marcel Getz.
Wideout Lane Lusher will be Winslow’s primary target on offense and starts at defensive back as well.
Frenchtown will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2011 campaign in which they only won one game and took fourth in the conference.
“I think Frenchtown is going to be back this season,” Wilson said. “They had a lot of young kids playing last year and that year of experience will really help them out.”
Kyle Rausch replaces Steve Pinsoneault as head coach for the Broncs after five years as an assistant.
His squad is returning 15 starters, most notably 13 players who started at some point last year on offense.
Seniors Dan Lebsock, an honorable mention all-conference running back last fall, and David Anderson will receive most of the carries for the Broncs.
Junior John Chapman will be under center again for Frenchtown, which averaged just under six points a game last season.
The Whitefish Bulldogs also return a wealth of experience, bringing back 13 lettermen and only losing seven starters.
Although they will be starting a freshman, Luke May, at quarterback, third-year coach Chad Ross is confident in the athleticism of his skill players.
Senior Logan Harwood, a two-time all-conference performer, will lead the receiving corps of the Bulldogs’ high-powered passing attack.
“They are simply a great passing team,” Wilson said. “I know they are starting a young kid at quarterback but I’m sure he’ll get broken in fast.”
Columbia Falls finished winless in the conference last season but are looking to turn things around under new head coach Jackson Schweikert.
“I think (Schweikert) is going to do a great job,” Wilson said. “But they will have a lot of inexperienced players playing in a new system, so it seems like kind of a rebuilding year for them.”