“Twenty-one to zero? Are you kidding me?”
I’m pretty sure I said something along those lines late in the first quarter of my KURL Radio broadcast of the 1997 State AA football championship game.
That frigid night nearly 20 years ago — Nov. 21, 1997, at Daylis Stadium in Billings against Bozeman — was expected to be the culmination of the dream season Billings West fans had been awaiting for nearly four decades.
The Golden Bears had not won a state football championship in the first 36 years of the program’s existence. But ’97 was expected to be “their year.” And with future college football standouts such as Johnny Edwards, Pat Ryan, Pat Carahasen, Willy Jacobson and Brandon Van Cleeve on the roster, it’s no wonder why.
West cruised through the regular season with only one setback, a 20-14 loss at Great Falls CMR in which Edwards, the star quarterback, sat out with an injury. The Golden Bears had easily handled Bozeman 28-11 in their regular-season meeting, led by 111 rushing yards and two TDs by Edwards.
In a 43-0 win over Butte in Week 2, Jacobson had four receptions for 110 yards. In a 56-0 win over Billings Senior, Edwards rushed for 134 yards on just nine carries. In a 51-7 win over Missoula Sentinel, Edwards threw for 388 yards. In a Week 6 win over Great Falls High, Carahasen set a school record with 235 receiving yards on 11 catches.
With those gaudy numbers and lopsided scores, it’s easy to see why the Golden Bears’ faithful — not to mention their play-by-play announcer — were stunned when Bozeman jumped to a 21-0 first-quarter lead in that championship game.
Edwards, though, recalls no sense of panic on the West sideline.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I mean, literally we had the utmost confidence the entire time. There was not an ounce of panic for anybody. As soon as we scored that first touchdown, we knew we were in the game.”
Trailing 21-0, Cory Perzinski recovered a Bozeman fumble that set up West’s first TD.
“Looking back, it was defense and special teams that won the game for us,” Edwards said. “Willy Jacobson had two huge block kicks, one on an extra point and he also blocked a punt.”
Jacobson’s blocked punt came with just over four minutes remaining in the game and was recovered on the Bozeman 27-yard line. Moments later, a 5-yard touchdown run by Van Cleeve gave West its first lead of the night at 34-33.
The two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the Golden Bears’ lead at a single point.
Bozeman’s ensuing drive is one of the most vivid memories of my broadcasting career. The Hawks had one of the best kickers in Montana history in Travis Dorsch, who earlier in the season had booted a state-record 63-yard field goal.
A potential game-winning field goal by Dorsch was on everyone’s minds as Bozeman moved down the field on that final drive. And the 6-foot-5 Dorsch helped put the Hawks in field-goal range himself, leaping high to haul in a 38-yard pass just outside the West 30 with just over a minute remaining. The drive stalled three plays later at the West 27, giving Dorsch a shot at a 46-yarder with 32 seconds left.
And I will never forget my play-by-play call. “Snap back … hold down … the kick is on its way … plenty of distance … it’s wide left! Wide left! West wins! West wins! Billings West 34, Bozeman 33! West High claims their first state championship!”
The storybook ending was complete, although not many at Daylis Stadium that night thought it was possible late in the first quarter.
Edwards went on to be known as “Johnny Montana” — by the way, I’m pretty sure I was the first to call him Johnny — while leading the University of Montana to a national championship. Carahasen, Jacobson and Van Cleeve went on to standout careers at Montana State, and Ryan played at Notre Dame.
They also left their mark on the West records books. Edwards finished as the school’s all-time passing leader, Carahasen the all-time leading receiver and Van Cleeve the all-time leading rusher.
But for Carahasen, being a part of West’s first state football title wasn’t about stats or records.
“Personally, what meant the most to me is that I got to do it with my teammates and friends and the people that I am still close with to this day,” he said. “That was the best part of it.”