HELENA — With the Bruins gathering at their backs, the Bengals stood, silently.
Hand in hand along the goal line, Helena High waited for the designated home team to storm the field at Vigilante Stadium.
Light chatter occasionally breaking through, suddenly one voice began to rise above the background noise. Senior quarterback Kaleb Winterburn, doing his best William Wallace, went from one end of the field to the other, looking into the eyes of every one of his teammates.
His message was loud, clear and simple: “Expect to win.”
Nearly two and a half hours later, the quarterback grinned at the mention of his pre-game charge, enveloped in elation on the Vigilante field following a 9-0 upset of crosstown rival Capital High.
“Yeah … my coaches were actually telling me to get back,” he said. “But I was just trying to cheer them on. You’ve just gotta want it. And we did.”
The Bengal win, coming on a chilly night that seemed to keep some of the typical overflow Crosstown crowd home, was anything but a sure thing for most of the night.
The teams were in a chess match throughout a scoreless first half.
Neither was able to put anything together offensively, and the only deep scoring threat was a Helena drive that pushed to the 21-yard line.
Helena put a bit more together on offense, but was constantly hindering itself with repeated five-yard penalties.
It was death by a thousand yellow flags.
Still, the Bengals’ locker room was one that had confidence at the break. They had picked up more than 100 yards of offense, despite not putting any points on the board. And they’d bottled up Capital’s vaunted ground attack almost completely.
“We were having good plays and we were on drives, but penalties kept bringing us back,” Winterburn said. “At halftime we kind of recuperated and talked it over.”
Most of that talk, said HHS receiver Zach Huth, was about mindset.
“We didn’t change a whole lot. It was just kind of an attitude,” he said. “We knew we were coming out and playing strong and playing tough. We knew we kind of had the upper hand on them already, so we just had to finish this out. It was more of an attitude change than anything.”
Five minutes into the third quarter, the Bengals finally broke the deadlock.
Their drive stalled out just outside the 10-yard line, but on fourth down, Holden Sampson booted through a 26-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 3-0 edge.
It was a tenuous lead, but the Helena defense continued to stymie the Bruin ground game, and the Bruins were never able to seriously threaten.
“Helena High came to play,” Capital coach Kyle Mihelish said. “They did a good job and had a good game play offensively and defensively. We got out-coached and out-played today.
“They just got after us on both fronts. They outplayed us. They put eight, nine in the box. We’ve seen that all year, and obviously Helena High’s had some success with it.”
The Bruin defense didn’t allow anything the rest of the quarter, and the story was the same through the first half of the fourth.
But then, finally, Helena found the play.
From midfield, Winterburn unloaded a rainbow of a pass down the HHS sideline, dropping it into the hands of Huth, who shed his defender and raced into the end zone, straight at the Bengals’ student section. The score, coming with 6:18 to play, all but shut the door on the Bruins with the Bengal defense playing lights-out the rest of the way.
“You never really know when that play’s gonna happen,” Huth said of the proverbial dagger. “When that ball was in the air, I really was kind of pushing outside to see if he’d fade with it a little bit. I knew that it was inside. So I was baiting him and then undercut him. I snagged it, he fell off, I ran into the end zone, touchdown.
“In front of this crowd, it was pretty sick. Especially in this end zone, running right to them and they’re all seeing it and it’s right there, it was pretty sweet.”
For his part, Winterburn will have to wait until film review to see just how the play finished up.
“That play … we knew what was coming. The corners were coming hard, and we knew what the corners were going to do so we just threw deep,” he said. “When I let go, I got smoked, so I didn’t see the play. But Zach Huth caught it and he was in the end zone, and that was that.
“Zach and I have good chemistry, and when I let go I had a feeling he was gonna catch it. It was awesome.”
The loss is the first of the season for Capital, which falls to 4-1.
While the Bruin locker room was a somber one following the game, there’s also realization that a 4-1 start in 2017 is eminently better than last season’s 1-4 start.
But coming in an emotional, hard-fought game, the defeat is also of the kind that can derail a season, Mihelish said.
“We’re gonna find out what kind of team we are. That’s what I just told them in the locker room,” he said. “We’ll see how we bounce back. We’ll see if there’s some division. Good teams come back and bounce back, and average teams kind of go in the tank. So we’ll see what we are. We’ll see what we’re made of.”
Helena, meanwhile, now heads into the second half of the season at 3-1 – the team had the previous week’s game against Kalispell Glacier canceled – and riding high.
“Obviously we have a lot of momentum now going into Great Falls High next week,” offensive lineman Sean Tuttle said. “We’re going to celebrate this one, get back to the grind on Monday, look at some film and get ready for that next game.”