Central vs. Laurel.
It’s a great rivalry regardless of what the records are or what’s at stake. When both teams are unbeaten in the Eastern A and the conference’s No. 1 seed is on the line, it’s even better.
Such will be the case tonight when Billings Central hosts Laurel in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium. The Rams and Locomotives are tied atop the Eastern A football standings, and tonight’s winner will clinch the league title and the No. 1 overall seed in the Class A playoffs.
Central (5-1) has won 40 straight Eastern A regular-season games and its last 11 games against Laurel. But Rams’ coach Jim Stanton knows he can’t take anything for granted against the Locos.
“It’s always going to be a battle with Laurel, no matter where either of us is sitting in the standings,” said Stanton. “Three of the last four years our game with Laurel has come down to the last possession, and we’re expecting that kind of game again.
“You always know two things about Laurel … Coach (Mike) Ludwig is going to have a fundamentally sound team and their kids are going to play hard for four quarters. Our kids have to be ready for that.”
After boasting a balanced rushing attack for the past several years, Central (5-1) has leaned on the running of standout junior Holden Ryan this season. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound speedster has rushed for 886 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
Ryan also lines up at wide receiver and has taken snaps at quarterback from the Wildcat formation.
“He’s a heck of a football player,” said Ludwig. “And we knew he would be from seeing him play at the freshman and JV level and seeing him at camps.
“Holden has the size and the speed and the toughness to be a great back … he’s got the whole package. The key for us is to get him tackled when we get a chance and try to limit his number of big plays.”
The Locomotives’ patented power running game has been led by junior Michael Buster and senior Mitch Kaufman, who’ve combined for more than 1,100 yards. Buster has rushed for 613 yards and seven TDs while Kaufman has run for 563 and five scores.
“Laurel is very good at establishing the run and then hitting you with some timely passes,” said Stanton. “They execute their offense well. The key for us is to get stops on third down when we get a chance and get their offense off the field.”
Laurel (5-2) has managed to keep piling up wins despite being snakebitten by injuries. All four of the Locos’ team captains — defensive end John Mills (knee), tight end Jake Anderson (knee), quarterback Tyler Ward (knee) and fullback/linebacker Matthew Martinez-Tillman (ankle) — have all suffered season-ending injuries.
“It’s been tough … I don’t know if I’ve ever had a year like this as far as injuries,” said Ludwig. “You can’t dwell on it, but there’s no doubt that each one gets a little bit harder.
“Our kids have done a great job of stepping up and filling in for the injured kids. When kids have gotten their chance to step in and replace somebody, they’ve taken advantage of it.”
Stanton said he’s been pleased with the number of younger kids that have worked their way into playing time — giving the Rams some much-needed depth after graduating 18 of 22 starters from last year’s State A championship team.
“We’ve been able to get more kids on the field in the last few weeks and that’s given us more options at a lot of positions,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of juniors and sophomores earn their way onto the field, and that’s been a big plus for us.”