HELENA — When asked about Helena High quarterback Kaleb Winterburn’s assets on the football field, his teammates and coaches invariably repeat the same word when describing their senior: “leader.”
Beginning with head coach Tony Arntson.
“Kaleb is a great natural athlete that matured into a quarterback, and a great leader on the field for us this year,” said Arntson, who will coach the Bengals in his fourth state title appearance Friday night, against defending champion Billings Senior.
Oh. And they also mention Winterburn's athleticism, competitiveness and toughness, although that applies to almost every good football player.
“Kaleb’s an important leader on the field during game time situations, as well as off,” offensive guard Mark Sullivan said. “Two nights ago, for example, he and (running back Kyle) Tabbert took the whole offensive line out to dinner."
Receiver Ray Trudeau, who caught two TD passes in the semifinal win over Capital, described how Winterburn’s “leadership helps keep the team’s energy level up, and (because) he’s always positive.”
“Kaleb manages the offense in a calm and collective way, giving us the confidence to go score touchdowns,” Sullivan added.
And TDs the No. 3 Bengals (9-2) have scored. Their 37.0 points a game are second only to the undefeated Broncs' (12-0) 37.2.
Winterburn, a 6-foot-2, 190 pounder who is headed to Montana State, has completed 101 of 181 passes (55.8 percent) for 1,448 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 490 yards and eight TDs while compiling 1,938 yards total offense and 25 combined touchdowns.
Winterburn, who is completing his second year as QB, has amassed career stats that have elevated him among some of Helena’s greatest quarterbacks.
He recently moved into No. 2 on the school’s list of career passing yardage and passing touchdowns, with 3,073 yards and 29 TDs. Jackson Thennis (2014-15) holds HHS's records of 3,112 and 34.
Winterburn also ranks third on the Bengals' career lists in two other categories. He has 3,664 yards of total offense, behind Matt Upham (2007-08) with 3,896 and Thennis’ 3,711. And he owns 37 combined TDs, after Thennis at 48 and 42 by Upham.
No doubt he possesses a good throwing arm, but the stats also can be attributed to his durability and versatility as an all-round athlete.
“I think probably the most amazing play I’ve seen Kaleb make came against Senior earlier this year, on fourth down and 6,” recounted Trudeau, describing a play reminiscent of former NFL great Fran Tarkenton. “He was chased all over the backfield by three or four guys, evaded them all, and then tossed the ball to Kyle Tabbert for a 7-yard gain.
“He was like 25 yards behind the line the scrimmage, but we got the first down.”
Winterburn first started visiting the end zone during his Helena Small Fry Football career. He played for Helena Auto Center in the junior league under coaches Mike Ishak and Kelly Horne. And then in the senior league for Rocky Mountain Computer, coached by Brian Morris and Sean Maharg.
And although they never made the finals of the city playoffs – “We lost in the semis every year” – he gained valuable experience in overcoming failure, in addition to meeting one of his life’s mentors.
“Brian Morris has believed in me since Day 1,” related Winterburn, speaking of the former Stanford All-Pac 10 receiver/running back. “He helped me be the best player I could be, and more than anything else he would take my mistakes and turn them into lessons.”
Winterburn also lauded the influence of “coach Arntson and all my coaches (who) believed in me, throughout my entire career.”
After spending his first season with the freshmen team, as a sophomore he served as the JV quarterback and backup for Thennis on varsity before taking over the starting job last year.
As the song goes, and Winterburn shares that same trait as most gridders – he can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.
“We try our best to prevent that from happening, but when he gets hit hard, he gets right up for the team,” Sullivan said.
Trudeau said that Winterburn “is a tough kid; he’s had physical issues like all of us,” but he fights through the injuries.
“Kaleb can take a hit and keep going,” he said.
Billings Senior is a formidable team, no question – backed by 25 consecutive victories – with a great defense and a loaded offense. But the Bengals are pretty good on both venues, with their fair share of offensive weapons, as well.
Tabbert has rushed for 1,129 yards on 177 carries (6.4 yard average), and 17 touchdowns. He also has 220 yards receiving and two scores, and has returned 20 kickoffs for 516 yards and a TD.
The 5-6, 150-pounder owns all-purpose totals of 1,859 yards and 20 touchdowns. Backfield mate Grady Koening has produced 441 yards rushing with a couple scores.
Receivers Zach Huth (37 catches) and Trudeau (32 catches) have 527 and 520 receiving yards. They have accounted for six TDs apiece.
On special teams, Zach Spiroff has returned 25 punts for 369 yards and two touchdowns, while punter Emmett Buckley is averaging 37.7 yards per boot.
When asked of the team’s mindset heading into the big game, Winterburn spoke of taking advantage of situations, and just doing what they do best.
“Most importantly we need to capitalize on every opportunity we get, we need to play fast and physical, yet under control and methodical,” he said. “But overall we just need to do our thing. Senior is a very talented and well-coached team, so we can’t get the thought of how big this game is, get to us.
“If we all do our assignments on every play, we’ll walk out of Billings with a ‘Dub’.”
NOTE: Helena O-line coach Bob Sampson will be taking part in the championship game with his son, junior left tackle Holden Sampson.