MISSOULA — The realization that the game was finished took several seconds to set in, but the celebration soon got under way as Kalispell Glacier fulfilled its preseason goal of winning a state title on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Wolfpack had rallied to force overtime, scored first and then made a stop as Kalispell Flathead went for 2 points and the win in the extra session. Those clutch plays in close succession helped them score a 20-19 win to beat their crosstown rival and capture the girls flag football state championship in the sport’s inaugural season in Montana.
“I can’t believe it,” Glacier junior quarterback Kai Johnson said. “I’m so excited. It feels like a dream. I’m so happy and proud of all my teammates.”
Trailing 13-7 with just under two minutes to play, the Wolfpack put together a quick-strike drive that ended with Johnson finding freshman Karley Allen for an 8-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left in regulation. A failed extra-point run sent the game to overtime tied at 13.
Glacier got the ball first in overtime, and the trick play paid off as Allen tossed a wide receiver pass to junior Noah Fincher for a 10-yard touchdown on the first play. Johnson then hit Fincher for the extra point to go up 20-13.
Flathead answered in its overtime possession as junior quarterback Harlie Roth ran for a 2-yard score. The Bravettes opted to go for 2 points and the win from the 10-yard line, but Roth was stopped short on the run.
“I was just thinking it’s now or never if we want to win a state championship,” Fincher said of the late-game situations. “First year ever, to win the flag football state championship, nobody can take that from us, so that’s pretty cool.”
Flathead had taken a 6-0 lead when Roth ran for a 10-yard touchdown on fourth down. The Bravettes were looking to go up two scores, but Johnson intercepted a pass at the goal line.
Johnson then heaved a 62-yard touchdown pass to Fincher, who outran her defender. An extra point pass to junior Staicia Thomas put Glacier up 7-6 at the half.
Glacier was looking to extend its lead, but senior Tali Miller intercepted a pass in the end zone on fourth down. Flathead converted that turnover into a score with 2:20 to play when Roth connected with junior Quinlenn Tennison for an 8-yard touchdown pass.
Roth then hit senior Peyton Walker for the extra point to make the lead 13-7. Glacier answered with 13 consecutive points as coach Mark Kessler, who has coached high school and junior college football for 25 years, utilized his timeouts to full effect.
“The excitement in their faces, this beats any championship I won back in California,” he said. “Just the overall excitement of where we started to where we got is just really amazing.”
Kalispell has been on the forefront of adopting new girls sports in recent years, like wrestling. So, it was fitting that two schools from the Flathead Valley separated by just 5 miles met in the first championship game to close out the six-week season.
Flathead had earned the No. 1 seed and a bye into the title contest, while Glacier beat Butte, 19-0, earlier Saturday to gain the other spot. They were the only three schools to sponsor a girls flag football team in the MHSA’s first-year pilot program.
“I think my favorite part of this was practice because getting closer with all the girls on the team was my favorite part,” Johnson said. “I’ve made so many more close friends, it’s awesome. I didn’t think I’d make this many. I hope that a lot more teams across Montana start flag football because they’d agree.”
The Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blank, who owns a ranch in Montana, have helped jumpstart and fund the sport in Montana. The Falcons bussed all three teams to Seattle last weekend for their NFL game against the Seahawks
The rules are modeled after the Georgia high school game, which has over 200 teams playing 7-on-7. Junior colleges and NAIA schools have even sanctioned the sport. Glacier listed 37 players on its roster, while Flathead listed 22 and Butte 23.
“You can hear some talking throughout other schools and other friends that they think it’s a really cool sport and wish it comes to their school,” Fincher said. “Even more Glacier girls are hoping to play next year.”
Each half consists of a 20-minute running clock, except for the final minute, making for a quick-moving, action-packed game. The field is 80 yards long and 40 yards wide, like the 8-Man and 6-Man games. Screen blocking, like in basketball, is legal because it’s a non-contact sport.
All players are eligible to catch a pass, like in 6-Man football. Catching passes is the area where Kessler saw the most improvement, and his players showed that in the final minutes.
“I think it’s going to exponentially grow,” he said of the sport. “We’ve got a state that suffers from a lot of things that teens are going through. This is another opportunity for them to get connected, either to a school, to a team, whatever it might be. It’s a sport that’s like no other.”