Polson, winners of four of the last five Northwestern A football titles, lost 15 starters off a team that went 9-1 in 2012.
That usually doesn’t bode well for a program, no matter how well-established. But the rest of this quarterback-happy league made its preseason prediction, and the favorite’s mantle fits the Pirates like an old pendant.
“I think that’s based on the last couple of years,” said Scott Wilson, the Pirates’ veteran coach. “People put that in the perspective that there’s a team you have to knock off. But I think there are other teams in this league that have good squads back from last year, and have to opportunity to be at the top.
“I think it’s going to be a toss-up as to who’s going to take those three playoff spots.”
Just five teams make up the Northwestern A and some former have-nots – Whitefish hasn’t won the league since 2002 but is picked for second – are ready to pounce.
Four of the programs return a starting quarterback and it could have been five: Frenchtown will turn the reins over to sophomore Zack Palmer, after John Chapman didn’t come out for football.
Polson, for its part, has junior Andrew Weltz back behind center. He can hand the ball off to junior Joe Gallatin, or throw it to Cedrick Smith or Brady Hislop, and Polson could well be cruising to another crown.
Whitefish won just one league game last year, but the Bulldogs are speedy and athletic. That includes quarterback Luke May, who completed 60 percent of his passes for a league-high 2,020 yards last year as a freshman.
Five of the Bulldogs’ losses last fall came to playoff teams. They also beat Havre, another playoff squad, in their season opener. Coach Chad Ross has a couple strong receivers in seniors Walter Holliday and Sean Foley, though they have work to do to make up for the graduation of Logan Harwood, who caught 59 passes in 2012.
Columbia Falls finished second last year and has to be considered armed – Jared Trinastich threw for 1,885 yards – and dangerous. Second-year coach Jackson Schweikert returns nine starters on both sides of the ball.
“We were super young last year, too,” said Schweikert, who also has Zach Darling, the league’s top returning rusher (586 yards, 10 touchdowns), back. “It was kind of crazy. And what’s even crazier is a lot of them are still juniors.”
Schweikert runs an up-tempo offense meant to wear down opposing defenses, and he has a fleet of capable receivers that includes Alex Presnell, Trevor Houston and Ty Morgan.
The trick is staying healthy up front where – this is fairly rare in Class A and below – Columbia Falls goes two-platoon.
“We prefer our lines to play one way,” said the coach.
He also prefers to run at least 80 offensive plays a game. The Wildcats met that goal twice last season while averaging between 72 and 73 snaps a game.
Frenchtown lost 17 starters off a 6-3 team, and that includes Weston Marsh, a two-way lineman who has transferred to defending state champion Billings Central.
The Broncs could still be pretty rough stock. Second-year coach Kyle Rausch expects big things out of seniors Bobby Erbaugh, Kevin Hodges, Cody Lemons and Jordan Moe. Erbaugh, Lemons and running back Gus Butler have Rausch convinced the Broncs are speedier this year.
Libby doesn’t have great numbers – 38 kids out, compared to 80 in Columbia Falls – but there is talent. Rausch considers Loggers quarterback Jared Winslow the top athlete in the conference. The senior threw for 1,779 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall.
Loggers’ coach Neil Fuller is encouraged in that his entire offensive line – tackles Michael Curtiss and Austin Marshall, center Cooper Brown, guards Tarasick Krisanov and Gage Cichozs – returns.
“They’re going to be the back-bone of our team,” said Fuller. “Krisanov is the only senior and the other and juniors and we’re excited about that.”
Another reason to be excited: Fullback Nik Robertson is back after sitting out 2012. The senior goes 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds.