Hot Springs hopes to add to gridiron legacy

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Hot Springs assistant coach Andrew Leichtnam works with Savage Heat players during a recent practice. Hot Springs is 8-0 and hoping to win a third state title since 2012. (Chuck Bandel/Valley Press)

On the outside facing of the press box are two years inscribed in big, black numbers: 2012 and 2016. This year’s Hot Springs High School football team hopes to add 2019.

The numbers represent previous football state championships in the fast moving game that is Montana 6-man football.

Senior quarterback Brandon Knudson was a freshman on the 2016 team that beat Westby for the state title. Following a win over White Sulphur Springs Friday night at Hot Springs, the Savage Heat are 8-0 on the year.

Knudson would like another state championship trophy.

“This is my last year here,” Knudson said prior to practice before the White Sulphur game. “I want to make the most of it.”

With just 12 players on the team, including three seniors, the Savage Heat say to a man this year’s team is fueled by trust in each other and a healthy dose of team speed.

Six-man football, like 8-man football, is played on an 80-yard long field that is slightly more narrow than basic 11-man football. Most often the games are high scoring affairs where many players play both offense and defense.

Classification of either 6 or 8-man is determined by enrollment and the number of players who come out for football. This year’s enrollment at the high school fell under the minimum of 65.

Head coach Jim Lawson, who at one point coached a co-op team with Plains that qualified for 11-man football, said it took awhile to adapt to the 6-man game. That partnership ended in 2011 when the co-op split.

“We (he and assistant coach Andrew Leichtnam) spent the 2011 year figuring out how to coach 6-man, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Lawson said. “We won the state title the next year, which no one expected we would do.”

A second state title followed in 2016.

For fans who have never seen a 6-man football game, the sport is an exciting blend of speed and scoring. Point totals for winning teams are often more than 60. That’s just fine with Lawson who said conditioning plays a key role in winning.

“Conditioning, lots of running is a big part of the game,” he said. “We also emphasize tackling. With the wide open field you can’t miss tackles and be successful. Speed is a big part of this game. Who doesn’t like scoring?”

Lawson said the nature of the style of play can change year to year, depending on the type of player who comes out for the team. Having big players is good, he said. “If you have big guys you stay in tight formations to enhance the running

game.”

Knudson, who has proven to be a team leader, has good running and passing skills. But he points to one basic concept that makes this year’s team a threat to win it all.

“We trust each other,” Knudson said who is also a linebacker on defense. “When I get the ball I know where my teammates are going to be blocking wise. We have all been friends since junior high.”

Knudson, who has also played 8-man football, said he likes 6-man better for several reasons. “I like the 6-man game better,” he said. “There’s more room to run and more breakaway type plays. Everyone gets to play.”

Those sentiments were echoed by sophomore running back Jack McAllister.

“The best part is trusting my teammates,” McAllister said. “We’ve all grown up together, there is no bad blood here. It’s like family.”

Knudson points to one aspect of conditioning in particular for the team’s success.

“Monday is known as Run Day,” Knudson said. “We do a lot of running on Mondays. Your legs can feel pretty tired after that, but the team is in good shape because of that.”

As is the case with many Montana sporting events, travel to away games presents an interesting challenge.

In winning the 2016 title, for example, the Hot Springs squad traveled to Plentywood to take on Westby, a traditional power on the east side of the state. That’s 619 miles from Hot Springs, a long bus ride by any

standards.

For the state championship game, the team did break up the trip with a couple nights in motels. Often, however, the team will travel long distances, play the game and return the same night.

It’s all worth it, the players and coaches say, to be part of 6-man football.

“There is a good atmosphere here,” coach Lawson said. “This is a great place to come watch an exciting game. We get good support from the town.”

When asked what he likes most about coaching at Hot Springs, Leichtnam, who has been at the school for six years, said simply “I love teaching these guys how to play the game the right way.”

With one more win Thursday night against visiting Gardiner High, the team will be positioned well to begin the playoffs. Being 9-0 would assure the Savage Heat of at least two homes games if they keep winning.

And winning it all would add another set of year numbers to the stadium press box.

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