BILLINGS — Coming into the high school football season, Billings Central was in unfamiliar territory with its roster.
The Rams only sported eight seniors, less than half the amount of last year's semifinal team.
So, naturally, coach Jim Stanton had some questions about his team coming into the year.
"We knew we had a lot of work to do and we knew we had a lot of good pieces out there," Stanton said. "If we could just get some early success and get things going in the right direction, we knew we had a group of kids that could build on that each week."
This Central team had to grow up quickly throughout the season, and the results have been beyond promising.
The Rams (9-1) are one of the final four teams remaining in the Class A football playoffs. They are winners of eight straight and secured a first-round bye in the postseason after finishing second in the Eastern Division. They defeated Frenchtown 45-10 last Friday in the quarterfinals.
Now they face the tall task of stopping a red-hot Hamilton team in the semifinals on Saturday in Hamilton at 1 p.m. The Broncs, like Central, have won eight games in a row after starting the season 1-1. Hamilton (9-1) beat reigning-champion Dillon 32-28 on Oct. 20 to also get an opening-round bye and win the Southwest A. Hamilton then blanked Glendive 47-0 last week.
Led by former Griz receiver and first-year coach Bryce Carver, the Broncs have looked every bit the part of a contender as of late.
And yet, so has Central.
Which makes the semifinal that much more interesting.
Central is led by do-it-all running back and linebacker Ben Voss. Voss has accrued 1,547 yards on the ground this year and 22 touchdowns while also receiving 261 yards and three more scores. He leads the team in tackles (48) and sacks (6), while also grabbing two interceptions — one of which he turned into a score.
Some of Central's remaining seniors don't see as much time as some of the underclassmen do. But Stanton said their leadership has paid dividends for the younger players on the team.
"Our seniors have been great leaders for us this year," Stanton said. "They have a lot of worth to the team. A lot of them aren't seeing as much time as they'd like to but they have a lot of value to our team and that's one of our hot things that we talk about. Together we can achieve a lot of different things."
One of those few seniors on the team includes Max Wohlgenant, who has been on Central's varsity team for a couple of years now. He said being as good as the team is now has been rewarding for all of the work he's put in for four years.
"It means a lot because it shows how much our whole team has come together," Wohlgenant said. "We had a lot of unanswered questions coming in to this year as far as what we're going to do, how many guys we had.
"A lot of these guys really stepped up. I know it's hard being a young guy coming out and showing up, especially before these big games. I'm really excited with how we've come together both on the field and off it."
Wohlgenant added that it's exciting to see how much young talent is on this year's team, because he knows Central will continue to be good in the near future. He added that the team isn't really surprised that they're where they are because of the work they've put in.
And then, there's the ever-present fact that each game could be his and each senior's last, something he humbly acknowledges but uses as motivation for each postseason match.
"You definitely get a new perspective because you know this could be your last game that you strap on the pads," Wohlgenant said. "Not only that, just this chapter in your life is closing and you're moving onto the next one."
Juniors Duncan Kraft, Marcus Wehr, Chrishon Dixon, Joe Byorth, Maverick Roberts and Jack Studer have been some of the younger players who were called on to have bigger roles this year. Dixon, a two-way starter, leads the team in receiving with 28 catches for for 358 yards and five touchdowns. He has enjoyed getting the opportunity to step in.
"I feel like a vet because now it comes with more leadership," Dixon said of his role. "I know the young guys get nervous, because that was me the last two years. So now I have to tell them to just be calm, breathe, and let it flow and it will happen."
Dixon said this year's semifinal feels similar to a year ago, when the Rams took on Dillon.
"I feel like this team has grown up a lot since the beginning of the season, and I really love that about us," Dixon said. "I kind of felt like we would be pretty good, but it depended on how well we worked together."
And the work has paid off, with Dixon saying seniors like Wohlgenant, Voss and the others have helped him improve his game.
"They taught me a lot, not just on the field but off it, of how to take control of myself, keep calm and lead the other guys, so next year I can do the same thing," Dixon said. "We owe (the seniors) a lot. Without them, we wouldn't be anything."
And as for Stanton, the the 16th-year head coach added that he's only had a season or two in his career with a team as young as this.
The Central vs. Hamilton winner meets the victor of Sidney and Columbia Falls in the state championship game next week.
"It's a special time of the year," Stanton said. "All your hard work and being in the top four. We've been in several semifinals in the last several years. Just really feeding off the kids energy ... For our young kids it's the first time being here and that's what we coach for is this group of kids. We get to do it every year as long as we want to do it. Their window is a lot shorter and it's pretty rewarding."