MISSOULA — The rocky road back to the State B title game starts Saturday at Rollin Field for the Loyola Sacred Heart football team.
The Rams came within a play of winning it all in Missoula last November. Determined to go all the way this year, they'll make their home playoff debut against Malta (6-2) at 1 p.m.
"I just went to the all-conference and all-state meeting (Monday) and one of the things we said to each other is there's really no clear picture this year," Loyola coach Todd Hughes said of the playoff landscape. "You can't let down one week because it could be the difference in going home right now or moving on. It's wide open."
Both teams will take three-game win streaks into Saturday's showdown. The Rams (5-3) have made an impressive turnaround since losing three of their first five games.
Key to Loyola's resurgence has been Scott Twite's steady improvement as a first-year starting quarterback. He's making the correct reads and checks and in turn the Rams' running game has improved.
"But I think the biggest turnaround is just defensively because the kids are getting more comfortable in what they're doing and what their roles are," Hughes said. "They're just letting themselves go rather than thinking about what they're doing.
"It's the scheme stuff, understanding where their responsibilities lie. I always tell the kids it's like a jigsaw puzzle and everybody is a piece. When it fits together, it's perfect. If not, you're out there thinking too much."
Defending Malta is going to be more about brawn than brains. The Mustangs are coached by former Ronan skipper Jim Benn, who favors a hard-nosed running game over aerial wizardry.
"I think they only average about 40 yards a game passing," Hughes noted. "They run it right at you.
"They've also got a lot of kids that know how to tackle. They've got that good wrestling program over there."
Malta's football program is a co-op that also includes athletes from Whitewater and Saco. Loyola fans may remember the last time the Rams played the Mustangs in 2012. The occasion was the state title game in Malta and Loyola came away with a 20-14 victory.
One intangible advantage for the Rams is their wealth of playoff experience. Over the past two seasons Loyola has competed in seven postseason games, including four last fall. Malta has played three in that same time frame and was buried at Eureka in a playoff opener last year, 54-13.
Still, every season is different and the Rams will need to play with a sense of urgency.
"Obviously it's one and done if you lose," Hughes noted. "You're packing up and getting ready for basketball season if you don't do the right things."
The winner of the game will play the winner of Saturday's Colstrip-Townsend contest in a quarterfinal clash next weekend. Colstrip boasts a record of 8-1, while Townsend takes a mark of 6-3 into its playoff opener.