WINTER 1998 Montanan - Volume 15, Number 2
by Rick Stern
Defensive back Josh Remington knocks down a pass.
This season several Montana Grizzlies, who had been finalists in the national football championships for the last two years, watched from the cozy confines of Missoula's Press Box Restaurant and Casino as Youngstown State of Ohio completed a 10-9 victory over McNeese State of Louisiana. Three weeks earlier, McNeese eliminated Montana in the first round of the playoffs, Montana's earliest exit in three years.
Nevertheless the Grizzlies have been among the best football teams in Division I-AA for the last five years. With eight wins, four narrow losses to excellent teams, and a string of injuries this year, Montana played as well as any team in the nation.
Fans summed up the season in a variety of ways: Some were happy that Montana fared as well as it did, while others voiced disappointment at the first-round playoff loss. But everyone agreed that the Grizzlies' 1997 season was injury-laden
"In spite of the injuries, the kids held together really well," said Montana head coach Mick Dennehy. "I think they got as much out of themselves as any group we've had."
The injuries began before Montana even played its first game, when tight end/punter Dallas Neil&-who was a key player in Montana's passing scheme&-sustained an ankle injury that shelved him for the season. Then junior quarterback Brian Ah Yat limped off the field with a knee injury during the Grizzlies' season opener against Stephen F. Austin. Montana rallied behind backup Darren Rowell to win 24-10, but Ah Yat watched the remainder of that game&-and the following week's 35-14 victory over Saint Mary's&-from the sidelines.
The star of the Saint Mary's game was senior wide receiver Josh Paffhausen, who caught a school-record fifteen passes. For Paffhausen, the victory was bittersweet after learning he'd torn a ligament in his left knee during the game and would miss several games before returning with a knee brace. To add injury to injury, Paffhausen's backup, senior wide receiver Trevor Woods, also blew out a knee in the Saint Mary's contest, concluding his Grizzly career.
Combined with injuries sustained by running back Josh Branen and wide receivers Jeremy Watkins, Justin Olsen, Travis Walker and Raul Pacheco, Montana's offense couldn't reach its characteristically precise level of play for any extended period of time, except in the 52-10 win over Sacramento State, the season's third game.
"We had people shuffling in and out of the offense, which made it hard to gel for the first five or six games," Paffhausen said. "It was tough for the quarterbacks to find their rhythm. When you shuffle five or six people in and the center snaps the ball, it's hard for the guy pulling the trigger [the quarterback] to know what to do."
Montana began the fateful month of October with a trip to Laramie to face a Wyoming team that spent much of 1996 ranked in the top twenty-five in Division I-A. The Cowboys exposed Ah Yat's limited mobility, forcing him from the game in favor of Rowell en route to a 28-13 Wyoming victory.
After dispatching Idaho State 48-0 in Pocatello, the Grizzlies returned home to an Eastern Washington team that played as well in Washington-Grizzly Stadium as any visiting team in years. The Eagles, who won the Big Sky Championship and advanced to the national semifinals, beat Montana 40-35 on October 18, ending a Grizzly home-winning streak of thirty games over three-and-a-half seasons.
The Grizzlies' nightmarish October continued as they lost to another tough opponent, Northern Arizona, 27-24 in a nail-biter in Flagstaff. The Lumberjacks won the game on a field goal with thirty-three seconds left.
With three losses and their playoff prospects fading, the Grizzlies righted their course as November rolled around. First UM beat Cal State Northridge 21-13, then Portland State 37-7. Finally, a 38-13 victory over Weber State set up the most significant Montana-Montana State game in recent history. If they won, the Griz would take second place in the Big Sky Conference and secure a playoff spot. The loser would end the season .
The Grizzlies got the better of the Cats in the first half, leading 21-7 thanks to a "Hail Mary" touchdown pass from Ah Yat to Pacheco as time expired in the half. The second half belonged to Montana State, who scored a touchdown with twenty-two seconds left to take a 25-24 lead. After having lost to the Grizzlies each of the previous eleven meetings, the Bobcats could taste victory.
These hopes were dashed when Ah Yat hit Justin Olsen with a 46-yard pass that set up the last-second, game-winning 37-yard field goal by Kris Heppner. The Grizzlies squeaked out of Bozeman with a 27-25 victory, their hopes for a national championship intact.
In the playoffs, Montana&-which had trounced a procession of southern teams in national championship playoff appearances in 1995 and 1996&-was forced to travel to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to battle McNeese State. But the south had its revenge: Montana's season came to an end when the host Cowboys scored a last-minute touchdown and pulled out a 24-19 victory.
"We certainly didn't go as far in the playoffs as we would have liked, but I don't think there's a lot of difference between our team and the teams that went farther in the playoffs," Dennehy said. "We would have liked to win one or two more games during the season and to host a playoff game, but we didn't.
"I don't think there's any sense of failure in falling short as long as the attitude and the effort are there, and I certainly think they were," Dennehy said. "They played hard." M Rick Stern is a free-lance writer when hešs not working at the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project.
SOCCER TALESIn just four seasons, the Montana Women's Soccer team has earned itself quite a following. On a chilly November 9 afternoon, 1,008 fans at UM's South Campus Soccer Field braved winds that dropped temperatures into the low 20's to watch UM beat Weber State 4-2 in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference.
Senior goalie Railene Thorson hoists the Big Sky Conference trophy for the Montana Women's Soccer team.
The Montana women reveled in another fantastically successful season under the guidance of head coach Betsy Duerksen. Following a 5-0 finish in its first year of Big Sky Conference play, Montana claimed the conference crown after defeating Portland State and Weber State in the first-ever Big Sky championships. UM wasn't invited to the NCAA Championships, despite being the sixth-ranked team in the NCAA's west region, but they were well-represented on the first-ever Big Sky All-Conference Team. Midfielder Shannon Forslund, forward Karen Hardy, midfielder Courtney Mathieson, forward Sara Overgaag, defender Lisa Oyen and goalkeeper Railene Thorsen were named to the first team, while defender Misty Hall earned an honorable mention. Oyen was also named the Big Sky co-MVP, which Duerksen pointed out is unusual for a defender.
"We had a really successful year," Duerksen said. "We were pleased with how the season turned out, although we were a little disappointed at not making the national tournament. But overall, we're pretty satisfied."