By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
While Class AA and Class A football teams across the state kicked off their 2004 football season last weekend, the entire state of Montana, including the Hi-Line, will kick off their season this weekend.
Defending Northern C champion Big Sandy will begin its season tonight, hosting archrival Chester at 7 p.m.
The Pioneers are under the direction of new head coach Larry Jappe. Jappe takes over for Scott Chauvet, who stepped down after guiding the Pioneers to a magical 12-1 record last season and a berth in the Class C state championship game.
The 2004 version of the Pioneers will be much different. Big Sandy suffered heavy losses to graduation including the all-state trio of Mason Ophus, Gage Brumwell and Skylar Pearson. Due to the key losses, Jappe admitted that this season will be a season of rebuilding in Big Sandy.
"This is definitely what I would call a rebuilding year," Jappe said. "You can't automatically replace players like we have had the last two seasons."
"But we have 29 players out for football this season and these kids are excited about the season."
Meanwhile, the Coyotes come into tonight's tilt with Big Sandy with a new head coach as well. Veteran head man Jim Graham is now the assistant and Chester athletic director, girls basketball coach and tennis coach Dustin Gordon will take over the reins.
Chester went 5-4 last season and lost to the Pioneers in the first round of the Class C playoffs. They suffered several key losses to graduation, but do return a solid nucleus of seniors like quarterback Kevin May and running back Patrick Wicks.
"The group of seniors we have back are pretty experienced," Gordon said. "And we have our backfield back, so offensively I think we are still going to be able to move the ball and score some points."
"I don't know if we'll have the same big play capability," Gordon added. "But we should still be a very consistent team on offense."
After Chester and Big Sandy get things rolling tonight, the rest of the Hi-Line will spring into action this weekend. In Northern Six-Man action, several area teams are entering the season with high expectations and high hopes.
In Box Elder, things have been building for the past two seasons after the school reinstated football. Box Elder went 5-4 last season, narrowly missing out on a coveted playoff berth. The Bears enter 2004 as a team on a mission to get over the hump and into the playoffs. Head coach Dave Nelson understands that the time is now for his Bears.
"Last season was great for our program," Nelson said. "We played some great football games and we came up just short against J-I to make the playoffs. It was definitely a successful season."
"But this year we want to take it farther," Nelson added. "We are definitely looking at making the playoffs but it will be tough. We will have to battle it out with two or three other teams for the last couple of spots."
The Bears will open their season on Saturday against defending state champion Geraldine. They will also have a battle with conference favorite Geyser in week two.
The Blue Sky/KG Eagles will have an entirely different atmosphere when they open their season this weekend. The Eagles have dropped from eight-man football to the Northern Six-Man league. The Eagles just missed out on a playoff berth last season, but veteran head coach Steve Simonson said that this preseason has been all about the move to six-man football.
"Things will definitely be different this year," Simonson said. "So far this year, we have solely been focused on changing and preparing for six-man football.
"It is like starting all over," Simonson added. "We have had to make a lot of adjustments and changes because we're playing a whole different style of football and the kids aren't quite used to it yet."
The Eagles will kick off their first season in six-man football on Saturday when they visit the Brockton Warriors.
There are also a pair of six-man teams that are excited about the coming season but are facing a tough road ahead.
The J-I Rams went 6-3 in 2003 and dropped an opening round game in the playoffs to Roberts. But the Rams, and head coach Bruce Beaudry are short on numbers this season making the prospect of returning to the playoffs very daunting.
"Overall we have lost five kids that would have been starters this season," Beaudry said. "We lost a couple of kids to Chester and a couple of kids to Blue Sky."
"But the good news is we have eight kids out for football this year and they are working hard and looking forward to playing football this season."
J-I opens it's season on Saturday with a trip to conference rival Rocky Boy.
Meanwhile, Rocky Boy has been in the rebuilding process for several seasons now. And although head coach Rick Sunchild has made some progress, the Stars are still coming off of a one-win season in 2003. However, Sunchild likes some of the talent on his young team this year and said that things have the potential to be much different this season.
"The kids are really excited about this season and they have been working really hard so far," Sunchild said. "We have 15 kids out this year and those numbers are pretty good for six-man football so I like where we are at right now."
"We do have some veteran kids but not many," Sunchild said. "Right now we're setting goals one game at a time this kids need some time to adjust and get some experience so we're not looking too far ahead."
The Stars will host J-I on Saturday afternoon to open the season.
With Chinook's unfortunate absence from the high school football season this year, that leaves Harlem as the lone Class B team left on the Hi-Line.
The Wildcats managed just one win a season ago and with the realignment of Class B districts this year, Harlem will have a very tough season ahead of them in District 1B. The new conference includes perennial Class B powerhouses Conrad and Cut Bank.
Veteran Wildcat head coach Joe Shupe also has a very young team this season but he is optimistic entering the 2004 campaign.
"We're a pretty young team but we have some skilled players," Shupe said. "We only have six seniors and four juniors but the positive thing is that those kids have all started on varsity for a while now so we will have some leadership."
The Wildcats kick off the 2004 season with a trip to Simms on Friday evening.