Havre Daily News Sports
The first official day of summer may just be a mere week away, but in Dickinson, N.D. on Saturday night footballs will be flying through the air when the 12th annual Knights of Columbus Montana-North Dakota High School All-Star game, affectionately known as the Badlands Bowl, gets under way at Whitney Stadium on the campus of Dickinson State University.
The game, which is set to kick off at 6 p.m., features all-star teams from North Dakota and Montana that are composed of graduates of the Class of 2005.
What makes the contest special to Havre this year is the starring roles that former Blue Pony standouts Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani will be playing on Saturday night.
Wagner, who will attend Carroll College this fall, was named the starting quarterback for the Montana team being coached by Billings Senior head coach Mark Sulser. Meanwhile, Mariani, who is walking on to the University of Montana later this fall, will be in his familiar role, catching passes from Wagner.
The duo have been working out with the rest of the Montana team since Monday and Wagner said that practices have been fun, yet very intense.
"Monday and Tuesday we had three practices each day," he said. "Then we went with two on Wednesday and Thursday."
"We have spent most of our time learning the offense and just getting things ready for the game," he added. "But it has been a lot of fun and we have a lot of great football players on this team."
One thing that has both Wagner and Mariani excited for Saturday night to come is the offense that Billings Senior runs. It is a pass-happy spread offense and it not only has Wagner operating from the shotgun, which he admits is a lot of fun, but it also gives him ample opportunities to throw a lot of balls to great receivers like Mariani and fellow U of M recruit Ty Palmer of Missoula Big Sky.
"We are going to throw the ball all over the place," Wagner said. "We have a lot of great athletes on this team and with this offense we should be able to score some points.
"We also have an awesome defense," he added. "There are some great defensive players on this team and they should get us the ball back a lot and put us in good positions to score."
Indeed, the Montana team is loaded with talented college recruits all over the field.
Offensively, the Montana team features athletes like Mariani and Palmer as well as Billings Senior wideout Derrick Green. Green is headed to Montana State University to play football.
While passing is the Montana squad's first option, the team also has a trio of stellar running backs led by Fort Benton's Brandon Utterback. Utterback is widely considered on of the fastest players in the state of Montana and he is also headed to UM to join his older brother Loren on the Grizzly football team.
Utterback is joined in the backfield by Billings Skyview's Derek Macio and Hardin's Jeff Brokaw. Paving the way for the running backs will be UM offensive line recruit Terran Hillsland of Sidney. Hillsland will be hard to miss on Saturday night as he stands 6-7 and weighs 280 pounds.
Defensively the Montana team features Montana Gatorade Player of the Year Sean Lebsock of Skyview. Lebsock is headed to Missoula where he'll play linebacker along side his older brother Matt. The defense will also have the benefit of Grizzly defensive line recruit Austin Mullins of Great Falls Russell as well as future Griz linebacker Jace Palmer of Missoula Big Sky. Jace is the twin brother of Tyler and both are staying in their hometown on full-ride scholarships.
As for the game itself it might appear on paper that the Montana team is favored because of all the tremendous talent they bring to Dickinson. But Wagner said that the North Dakota team is equally talented and they will present a stern test for their neighbors from the West.
"The North Dakota team has the Gatorade player of the year as their quarterback and I have heard they have a very big and physical team," he said. "It should be a really good game and it is going to be a lot of fun."
The 2005 Badlands Bowl is slated to get underway at 6 p.m. at Whitney Stadium in Dickinson, N.D. on Saturday. Wagner, Mariani and the rest of the Montana team will then have a couple of weeks of rest before the split up to prepare for the annual Montana East-West Shrine game in Great Falls in late July.