Flathead gridders have outside shot

Aug. 25—It makes sense for the Flathead Braves, a one-win football team a year ago, to be only looking up this season. Especially if they look outside the hash marks.

"We didn't lose a single receiver," second-year coach Caleb Aland said. "So I'm really excited about that skill group. A lot of snaps played, a lot of maturity in that group, and a lot of leadership."

Tight ends Gabe Sims and Braden Capser and receivers Brody Thornsberry and Ben Bliven are all back. Sims grabbed a team-high 25 passes for 351 yards in 2022; Thornsberry averaged 21.4 yards on 19 catches. Both seniors caught three touchdowns.

The Braves did lose their top running back, Joe Jones, and two senior quarterbacks. Jones played most of last season on an ACL injury; it was decided he'd forego his senior season.

In Jones' place is senior Jaden Williams — he caught 14 passes and had seven carries last year — and sophomore Tim Zundel.

"He's put on some weight and gotten faster," Aland said of Williams. "Both those guys, I'm excited to see them carry the rock."

It helps to have three experienced linemen back in tackle Caiyou Wits, third-year starting center Austin Schabel and right guard Landon Darsow. That fact should help the quarterback tandem of Brett Pesola and Kaleb Sims, both juniors.

Sims played corner last season, but Aland liked the way he threw. A proponent of data analysis, he kept careful track of every pass during summer camps and fall drills.

"The numbers were exactly the same for both guys," Aland said. "I think they'll both play. I don't know who's going to start yet, but they'll both play and we'll see who gets it done."

Tempering Flathead's outlook is a lack of depth.

"We are thin, so we have guys going both ways," Aland said. "We'll have guys playing defense who haven't played defense since middle school. So that's nerve-racking, but it's exciting as well."

If Aland has his druthers the Braves — an up-tempo offense a year ago — will huddle up, break with two tight ends and shorten games to help keep his two-way players fresh.

"Braden Capser is really really talented and kind of floats under the radar," he said. "Sims had such a good year; he played a lot at tight end. They're two of our best offensive players so we're going to put them both on the field at the same time."

There is leadership on the defensive side of the ball: Senior linebacker Easton Capser was a team captain last year; Tanner Heichel was second-team All-State at corner; Stephen Riley started as safety and Noah Sonju figures to man the other safety spot.

Williams, a linebacker, is just one example of the two-way approach Flathead will use. Thornsberry gives the squad a second big corner.

The Braves open at Great Falls C.M. Russell, a 3-7 team last year that has to replace quarterback Cole Taylor but has a lot of returning talent on defense.

"I know they're going to go tempo," Aland said of the Rustlers. "We'll try to control the speed of the game. That's going to be our story all year."

Beyond that, Aland wants to see improvement away from Legends Stadium.

"If we can get off the bus," he began. "We had our toughest games on the road, and played our best football at home. If we can get off the bus and feel good about ourselves, I feel good about it."