The Resurgence of Hellgate Football


Photo By Camas Allison-Bunnell

Jason Upton, Sports Editor

The wait is over. After six years of enduring loss after loss, Hellgate students can rejoice. What may seem like just a win may be the start of an upward spiral for the Knight’s football program. “We’re still pretty young, we start a lot of juniors, so we’re getting to where we’re going to be competitive and win football games,” said coach Mick Morris. With next year set to be the last, most successful year of this talented junior class, the Knight’s future is looking very bright.

Everyone knows about the losing streak Hellgate endured previous to their homecoming win this year. What most people don’t know, however, is how the history of their program. The Knights made two state championships in the early 90’s, losing to Butte in 1991 and Big Sky in 1994. While that 1994 run would be the last time they made the playoffs through this 2018 season, they still enjoyed some success in the rest of the 90’s. “We had some very successful years after that, in 1995 we actually tied for the last playoff spot, but lost out in a tie-breaker, so in 1995 we were a good football team. 1996 wasn’t such a good year, but 1997-99 were all good years, 2000 was a pretty good year. Going .500 [winning percentage] at Hellgate is usually a pretty good record, and we were .500 around then” said Jeff Dohn, an assistant coach for Hellgate from 1986-93, and head coach from 1994-2008.

One reason many people point to as a factor in Hellgate’s decline was the introduction of soccer into Montana high school sports in 1991. Students that would normally be the kicker for Hellgate were suddenly choosing to play soccer. Before soccer was brought into high school athletics, it was only a YMCA sport in the 80’s. “We had some kids that were good kickers and good athletes that were choosing to play high school football over soccer [before it was an option]. It certainly made a difference at Hellgate” said Dohn.

The mid-2000s was where Hellgate really dropped off. Turnout for football just became an issue in general. “My last year, 2008, we only had a couple seniors, and you can’t start to win without seniors,” said Dohn.

Now, in the 2010s, concussions may have more relevance in the low turnout. With fewer parents wanting their kids to play football and risk injury, the volume just isn’t the same. In a poll done by CBS, out of 1,000 parents asked 16% said that they would not allow their kids to play any sports and 82% said that they would not let their kids play football in particular. In addition, a study by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that out of 202 deceased football players, 21% of the high schooler’s brains showed evidence CTE.

The low turnout has definitely made an impact on the Knights’ performance this season.  “We’ve been starting well, usually in the first half, and then we get worn out a little bit. We’ve got a lot of guys going both ways” said Morris. This was shown on Sept 14, when Hellgate jumped out to a 20-7 lead at halftime over the Big Sky Eagles. The Eagles then scored 28 unanswered points and won the game 35-27.

Nevertheless, Hellgate coaches believe that this win is the beginning of a resurgence for the football program. Previous to the win, Dohn stated “I think right now, they’re just struggling to learn how to win. If you haven’t won, it’s hard to get the feeling. I think the coaches are learning about athletes, where they best fit into the program and what they can do. It’s a learning process.” Morris added, “They [the players] are pretty self-motivated. I think everybody with our program coaches, kids etc. they want to win. We don’t do anything special [to raise morale]. They’re showing up every day and they’re working hard.”

Next year’s group has a lot of hype surrounding it, and Morris has his sights set high for it. Still, he hasn’t given up on this season. “Our goal next year is to make the playoffs. Honestly, I think that if some things bounce our way and things go our way, we have an outside shot this year” said Morris. “We’ve got 7 games left and I think there’s some winnable games. Obviously, it’s going to be hard but I definitely think in the next couple years that’s our goal. Anyone that goes to the games could tell that we’re getting there.”