Survived. Escaped. Prevailed.
However you describe it, the Golden Bears of Billings West were thrilled to still be alive in the Class AA football playoffs when they left Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium Friday night.
Lee Hardt caught an eight-yard touchdown pass from Brady Gustafson with nine minutes remaining and the West defense held on Billings Skyview’s final drive to preserve a 14-13 win in their first-round Class AA playoff football game.
“I’m just glad to get out of here with the win,” said Hardt, whose game-winning catch came on a quick slant across the middle on a third-and-four play. “Skyview came out and played a great game … they played a little better than us, to be honest. I’m just glad we were able to make a couple of big plays in the fourth quarter to pull it out.”
West (9-2) advances to face Helena High (10-1) in a semifinal game next Friday night in Helena.
Following the Gustafson-to Hardt connection — and Bailey Lehenbauer’s extra-point kick — gave West the lead, it was up to the Golden Bears’ defense to hold the lead. After the ensuing kickoff, Skyview took over on its own 23 with 9:01 remaining — seemingly perfect for the Falcons’ clock-eating ground attack.
Skyview appeared headed for a game-winning touchdown or field goal, using 10 plays to reach the West 35, where they had a first-and-10 with 4:12 left.
But on first down, cornerback Carlos Cano shot through the Skyview front line and nailed quarterback Connor Lebsock for a seven-yard loss that turned the tide of the game. On second down, Lebsock ran for a one-yard gain, and on third-and-long Lebsock rolled right and with a trio of West defenders closing on him, threw a pass that was intercepted by Jayc Van Zee on the West 25 with 2:18 left.
After four straight Clay Compton runs produced two first downs, the Falcons were out of timeouts and Gustafson took a knee twice to run out the final seconds.
“That wasn’t really my responsibility on that play … I just kind of reacted and got in there,” said Cano of his big defensive play. “That was the third or fourth time they had run that play, and Lebsock had been getting around that edge on us for some big yards.
“Our defense picked it up in those last few minutes and stopped them. Skyview played a hell of a game … we were expecting this to be a battle and it was. We just didn’t want this to be our last game.”
The first-ever playoff game between the two crosstown rivals featured plenty of twists, turns and big plays:
• After Skyview marched 80 yards in 13 plays on the game’s opening possession — scoring on a one-yard Lebsock run — West’s Sesar Bonilla leaped high in the middle of the line to block Cole Sowden’s extra-point kick.
• On West’s first possession, the Falcons appeared to stuff Compton on a fourth-and-one play on the West 46. But as the West offense and Skyview defense trotted off the field, the officials called for a measurement that resulted in West getting the first down. Seven plays later, Compton scored from two yards out for a 7-6 West lead.
• Midway through the second quarter, Skyview’s Jared Keeling was stopped by Keenan Doble and Dylan Donahue on a fourth-and-one play from the West 3-yard line.
• One play after the Golden Bears recovered a Keeling fumble on the West 33, Lebsock intercepted a Gustafson pass and returned it to the West 41.
• After taking a 12-7 lead on a seven-yard pass from Lebsock to Haakon Nordrum with five minutes left in the third quarter, Skyview lined up for a two-point conversion. But a false start penalty moved the ball back to the seven, causing Skyview coach Ron Lebsock to send in Cole Sowden for the PAT kick.
“We needed every big play we got to get out of there with the win,” said West coach Paul Klaboe. “Skyview played great … they played as hard as a team can play and I really feel for those kids and their coaches.
“We made some mistakes with turnovers and quarterback sacks and dropped passes … they all added up to us being in a dogfight. The plays at the end of the game were big, but Sesar’s play (the blocked PAT) might have been THE play. That was the difference on the scoreboard.”
West was held to just 209 total yards. Clay Compton ran the ball 19 times for 70 yards and a touchdown, and Gustafson threw for 149 yards and a touchdown.
Ryan Guelff rushed for 99 yards on 23 carries for Skyview, which outgained West 252-209 in the defensive battle.
Skyview finishes with a 6-5 record.
“It was a well-fought game on both sides … it’s one of those games where someone’s gonna come out on the losing side and that’s too bad,” said Skyview coach Ron Lebsock. “I’m really proud of our kids … they gave it a great effort tonight.
“Our kids overcame a lot of adversity all season and tonight, too. We just came up a little short.”