BILLINGS — About midway through the high school football season, defending state champion Dillon and Sidney were tabbed by many as the two favorites to meet in the Class A state championship in November.
And though they are going to still meet in November, it's about two weeks earlier than most expected.
The Beavers and Eagles will clash in the quarterfinal round up in Sidney at 1 p.m. Saturday. Dillon (8-1) is coming off of a 53-13 victory over Butte Central while Sidney earned a first-round bye after winning the Eastern Division crown.
"It's a huge game and it's probably a little sooner of a matchup than what we thought would happen," Sidney coach Roger Merritt said. "It's a great matchup between two programs that have had a lot of tradition in football."
By Week 7, both teams were the only remaining undefeated teams in the classification, and had dominated their way to the top of their respective divisions. However, the following week Sidney received its first loss of the year, a 28-0 shutout on the road at Miles City. The week after that, Dillon was shocked by Hamilton 32-28 for its first loss.
Though Sidney stayed in the driver's seat of its division, Dillon fell to the No. 2 seed in the Southwest A. That shift lined up the two on the same side of the bracket, setting up this early postseason meeting. Merritt said the last time these two programs played each other was in 1993 in a semifinal game in Sidney.
So, it's been awhile.
"It's awesome to have an opportunity to play Dillon," Merritt said. "They've had success in the last five or six years that's been far more than any other program. It's a great opportunity and that's what I've been telling the kids. It's an opportunity for them to display their talents and just go out and play their game."
Merritt and Dillon coach Rich Nordahl played football at Montana Western together, and have spent 25-plus years as coaches at their respective schools. Merritt has been a coach at Sidney for 33 years and is in his seventh season as the head coach. Nordahl is in his fifth year as head coach and 28th overall.
"I have all the respect in the world for (Nordahl)," Merritt said. "He's a done great job for Dillon and that program."
Merritt said his team used the bye week to get healthy and rest up for what would be a grind of a first-round game.
He added he's happy they get to stay home, as the drive between the two towns is no slouch. It's 525 miles and just under eight hours between the two towns.
"I always enjoy going to Dillon but it's nice to have them come here," Merritt said. "To get there and have the opportunity to suit up and go play in November in Montana Class A football, that's pretty special."
Bridger fights through adversity
The Bridger Scouts know a thing or two about getting past adversity.
This year has been no different.
The Scouts, one of the 6-Man favorites to open the season, began their campaign with a 48-47 overtime loss to Westby-Grenora, but responded by cruising through their final seven regular-season games to earn the top seed from the 6-Man South. The Scouts opened the playoffs with a 66-0 defeat of Valley Christian and will next host Big Sandy Friday at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals.
"They were hungry," Bridger coach Mike Mathis said after they lost to the Thunder. "They were eager to make up for that."
The wins haven't come without loss, as senior quarterback Kaleb Buessing was injured in Bridger's game against Shields Valley. Buessing, whose junior season was cut short due to a torn ACL, suffered the same injury in his other knee this year, ending his season. The team also lost defensive end Eric White with a broken arm and slight shoulder separation.
So Bridger has been making due with what they have. Mathis said the depth has been hit hard but his players have stepped up well to fill roles. He said cousins Colter and Russell Zentner have been the key leaders, while Colby Zentner, Colter's younger brother, has also been playing well for the Scouts. Nick Althoff and Jake Kallevig have thrived in increased playing time.
"It's going to be our speed against their size and brawn," Mathis said about Big Sandy. "They have five kids that are pretty big. It should be a great game since its size against speed."
Bridger will also have to deal with freshman phenom Kade Strutz, who racked up 334 yards on 36 carries and four touchdowns for Big Sandy in its opening-round win over Richey-Lambert.
"They're willing for the challenge," Mathis said. "They're used to these big games and they're really up for it. It's a mental battle as much as anything. It's overcoming things. As long as they play hard we'll be ok."