GREAT FALLS — Perhaps no school in Montana has a tradition of success on the football field quite like the Great Falls CMR Rustlers. Twelve Class AA state titles, and countless legendary players will do that.
But the Rustlers have missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and haven’t posted a winning record since 2014, finishing 4-6 in 2017. That’s something that’s not lost on this year’s seniors as they opened fall camp on Friday in preparation for the 2018 season.
“Last year we had a couple games where it could have gone both ways, and it was really heartbreaking,” said quarterback Kellen Hartman. “So this year finishing is just a big thing that we’re going to work on. We’re going to get it back to how it was — where CMR is the team to beat.”
While CMR returns several starters on defense, the offense is a work in progress to start the fall campaign.
“We lost some offensive linemen,” said fifth-year head coach Gary Lowry. “And that’s one thing we want to shore up. If you’re not good up front, you’re not going to be good anywhere else. That’s always an issue, is our offensive line. Defensively, we have a lot of kids who played a lot of football last year. We have six kids back that started games. We’re pretty experienced on the defensive side, and offensively I think we’ll be pretty good once we get things solidified a little bit.”
One thing the Rustlers will do differently this year is play several athletes on both sides of the ball, including all-state safety Tucker Greenwell, who will split time at receiver and also return kicks.
“I’m definitely excited about it,” Greenwell said. “But I’m going to have to work my butt off these practices to get in shape for that, because I’m going to be playing offense and defense and probably kick return, kickoff, punt, punt return. I probably won’t get a break very often.”
Lowry knows two-way players aren’t unique to Great Falls. The Rustlers saw 122 athletes come out for fall camp. Those are good numbers for a Class AA school, but a far cry from CMR’s championship heyday.
“Everybody’s running into a numbers crunch,” Lowry said. “You don’t have a lot of guys you used to have, so we’re going to have players learn a lot of positions just to solidify some gaps in case we have some injury issues or something.”
The AA is expected to be wide open this year, and the Rustlers believe they are a team that could fill that void.
“Last year we were a good team and the cards didn’t fall our way,” Greenwell said. “Hopefully this year we’re forcing some better plays and not making as many mistakes, being just a solid team all around.”
Great Falls CMR opens the season Aug. 25 on the road at 2017 AA runner-up Helena High. The Bengals are coached by first-year mentor Scott Evans.