HELENA — For the first time in six years, the two Helena teams will square off in the Class AA football playoff semifinals, as No. 3 Helena High and No. 6 Capital face off Friday with a berth in the state championship on the line.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. in Vigilante Stadium.
Helena owns an 8-2 record and advanced to the semis with a 42-7 win over Billings West in the quarterfinals. Capital enters at 7-4, having defeated Kalispell Flathead 24-10 last week in their quarters’ match.
Coach Tony Arntson’s Bengals are outscoring their opponents by an average of 38-18 points a game. The Bruins, under coach Kyle Mihelish, hold a 23-18 scoring advantage over their counterparts.
HHS won the season intra-city contest during five weeks ago, 9-0.
Directing Helena’s offense is quarterback Kaleb Winterburn, who has completed 86 of 157 passes (55-percent) for 1,175 yards, with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
He has also rushed for 420 yards and eight TDs, bringing his total offense to 1,495 yards with 22 combined touchdowns. Last week he was 9 of 11 for 153 yards and had three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing).
“Kaleb did a great job against West,” HHS tailback Kyle Tabbert said. “He threw well and ran very hard, put up most of our points and was a great leader.”
Tabbert paces the rushing attack behind the Bengals’ offensive line, gaining 1,094 yards while tallying 20 total TDs – 17 rushing, two receiving and one on a kickoff return. Backfield mate Grady Koenig has 530 rushing yards with four scores.
The receiving corps features Zach Huth and Ray Trudeau, who have combined for 64 catches for 963 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Across the line will be Capital’s defense, led by linebackers Nick Morrison and Seth Schneider, defensive backs Mark Northey and Ryan Kimball, and linemen Justin Jenks and Alaric Greil.
Morrison has amassed 126 total tackles, Northey has pirated seven interceptions, Jenks owns nine sacks and 13 hurries, and Greil made 12 tackles for loss.
In last week’s win over the Braves, the defense bent but did not break, which Morrison attributes in part to the line.
“Our D-line controlled the line against Flathead and put pressure on the quarterback, which allowed (the rest) of the defense to make plays,” he said.
Morrison described how part of the team’s mindset Friday will be “taking the game one play at a time and doing our jobs on that play,” along with “living, embracing and enjoying” the moment.
Capital’s offense is quarterbacked by Matt McGinley, who raced 40 yards for the go-ahead TD versus Flathead. On the year, he has completed 70 of 126 passes (56-percent) for 629 yards, with six TDs and six interceptions.
McGinley has rushed for 569 yards and four touchdowns as well, for a total offensive output of 1,251 yards and 10 scores.
“I think our O-Line had the best game of the season versus Flathead last week,” he said. “(Against Helena) we’ll have to move the ball and score points; it’ll be key for us to have long drives. And we have to limit our mistakes and capitalize on our opportunities.
They set the tone for the whole game, opened up great holes for us, and executed at a very high level.”
The Bruins’ ground game is led by Schneider, with 1,439 rushing yards (7.5 average) and 19 touchdowns. He also catches passes and returns kicks, and owns a season total of 1,879 all-purpose yards, with 21 total TDs.
Conor McCarvel is the top receiver, with 55 receptions for 423 yards and four scores. Kicker Brian Buschini has 31 PATs and three field goals.
They will line up across from an HHS defense whose stat leaders include linebackers Connor Nash (127 total tackles), Sam Shepherd and Keanan Horne; lineman Caeden Suero (10 sacks, 24 hurries) and Jack Kanta; and defensive back Alex Johnson (six interceptions, nine deflected passes), among others.
Nash had a huge game against West, posting 22 total tackles (14 solo), one TFL, a caused fumble and a school record-tying three fumble recoveries, for 54 defensive points.
“On the defensive side of the ball, consistency is every thing,” Nash said. “Against a great running offense the defense needs to play together and do their jobs to create turnovers so our offense can turn around and score.”
Tabbert said keys for Helena are “for us to just keep doing what we’ve been doing all season long – keep our mental focus, finish our drives, stop Capital on defense” and to play their game.
“Offensively we have to move the chains and score,” CHS coach Kyle Mihelish said. “Defensively, Kaleb does a good job managing the offense and they have two great runners in Tabbert and Koenig.
“Hey, it’s playoff football. It will be a fun, hard-fought game."