This was what playoff football is all about: two hard-hitting teams with outstanding athletes on both sides of the ball, multiple lead changes and a large group of energetic fans cheering them on.
In the end, Clark Fork had enough in the tank to out-duel a tough and talented squad from Belt and walk away with a 46-34 Montana 8-man football quarterfinal playoff win Saturday afternoon in Superior.
With the win, the Mountain Cats, a co-op comprised of players from Superior and nearby Alberton, advance to the state semifinals, where they will face Great Falls Central. The Mustangs from the north qualified with a 49-34 win over two-time defending C-8 champion Flint Creek.
Now sporting an unblemished 11-0 record on the year, the Mountain Cats opened the battle with a long drive downfield, starting from their own 30-yard line. They would cap that drive with a 4-yard run by senior running back Trey Green, who punched over on a 4 th -and-goal play. Mask ran for the extra points giving the bracket’s top seed an early 8-0 lead.
Belt, a team featuring several tall, talented receivers, answered that score with a long drive of their own culminating on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Hunter Vogl to Kaimen Evans. A successful point after run by Evans squared the game at 8-8 with 4:44 left in the opening frame.
The Mountain Cats were forced to punt after being held by the Huskies stout defense on their next possession. Several plays later, Green knocked the ball out of the hands of the Belt ball carrier, a fumble that was pounced on by Clark Fork senior Hewston Coon at the Huskies 38-yard line. A series of passes for first downs moved Clark Fork to the 5-yard line, where Green danced through the Belt defense for six points, giving the home team a 14-8 lead.
That lead didn’t last long. On the ensuing kickoff, Vogl caught the ball on the 10 and broke free down the sideline on his way to a 70-yard TD return. A successful 2-point after pass from Vogl to TJ Hennes gave the Huskies their first lead of the game, 16-14 as the first quarter came to an end.
The Mountain Cats next possession ended when quarter Bryan Mask was stopped short on a fourth down and five, giving Belt the ball on the Cats own 16 yard line.
Two plays later, Vogl connected with wideout Aidan McDaniel who sprinted 67 yards down the field for a touchdown that lifted the Huskies to a 22-14 lead with 10:02 to go in quarter number two.
Following a kickoff that bounced through the end zone for a touchback, the Mountain Cats began a drive from their own 15. They converted a fourth down and four yards to go play on their way downfield, and were aiding by a costly pass interference call on Belt. With 6:55 remaining in the first half, Mask fired a TD strike to Isaiah Kovalsky from 23 yards out. The score cut Belt’s lead to 22-20.
Clark Fork held scoreless on its next possession and got the ball back on their own 35 following a Huskies punt. A mixture of runs and passes, including another fourth down conversion moved the ball to the Belt 5, where Mask rolled out and scored. The 5-yard TD gave the lead back to the Mountain Cats 26-22 with 3:29 to play in the first half.
Belt grabbed the kickoff and took control of the ball on the Clark Fork 35. A series of running plays, including a crucial fourth down conversion of their own, was highlighted when Evans broke through the Mountain Cats defense and scampered 42 yards for a TD that pushed Belt back in front, 28-26 with 2:29 remaining in the opening half.
The first half fireworks were not done yet. Clark Fork began its next possession from its own 15. An 11-yard run by Green and a series of passes for first downs moved the ball deep into Belt territory. Along the way they were aided by another costly Huskies penalty, this one for an illegal block in the back.
The Cats kept moving until it appeared they may be stalled on the Belt 8. After a delay of game penalty on Clark Fork moved the ball back to the 13, the Huskies were flagged for pass interference and a play that negated what would have been a Belt takeover on downs.
With 13 seconds to go in the half, Mask floated a 13-yard pass into the end zone where it was hauled in by Kovalsky. That score gave the Cats a hard-fought 32-28 lead at the half.
In the second half, defenses on both sides took control. After trading possessions of the ball, Belt took advantage of a shanked Clark Fork punt which went out of bounds at the Mountain Cats 20.
With a light rain beginning to fall, Evans found Huskies receiver Henness in the end zone for a 9-yard TD pass, switching the lead back to Belt 34-32 as time expired in the third quarter.
Beginning at their own 15, the Mountain Cats combined a series of running plays and passing plays to move steadily downfield.
They retook the lead with 10:26 to play in the game when Mask once again hooked up with Kovalsky on a 24-yard touchdown pass. Mask then added a two-point conversion when he ran into the end zone. At that point, the lead went back to Clark Fork, 38-34.
From that point on, the Clark Fork defense managed to bend but not break, shutting out the Huskies balanced attack on several possessions. Late in the game, following a Belt punt, the Cats took control on their own 15.
A Mask sweep gave them a first down and a few plays later Green plowed through the Belt defense, shedding several would-be tacklers on his way to a 47-yard scoring run. A successful PAT run would be the game’s final score, 46-34. In all, the game featured seven lead changes.
After the game, Clark Fork head coach Dave Schultz said his team was “a little nervous in the first half.”
But their anxieties were calmed during halftime when he admonished them to “play up to your expectations and go out and have fun.”
Those words were echoed at the end of the game when the players gathered near the goal post.
“You guys started to like fighting hard to win,” assistant coach Mat Doughty told the victors. “You started to like the competition. We need to bring that fight into next week’s game.”
The loss dropped the visitors from Belt to 7-3 for the year. Next Saturday, the Cats will face a Great Falls Central squad that comes in with an 8-2 season mark.
The game will be played in Superior, beginning at 1 p.m.