KALISPELL — Kalispell Flathead won its first home playoff game since 2005 when the Braves knocked off two-time defending champion Billings Senior last week. Defenses around the state are aware of tailback Blake Counts and his record-breaking season, but it’s first-year starting quarterback Jaden MacNeil who has added another dimension to Flathead’s explosive offense.
In Flathead’s opening-round win over Senior, MacNeil tallied more than 190 rushing yards and a pair of scores, while also throwing for another.
“He’s just getting better and better every week. He’s starting to get more confidence,” Kalispell Flathead head coach Kyle Samson said. “I don’t think you would think he’s a first-year starter the way he’s playing now. We wanted to make the move, we knew he was a tremendous competitor. I think he’s just really grown up and it’s just exciting to have him back there.”
Between MacNeil and Counts, the Braves racked up more than 500 rushing yards against Senior, the Braves’ biggest output of the season. Dominant play in the trenches and key blocking on the edges allowed Flathead to steamroll the Senior defense and control the tempo of the game.
“(Counts) is the best running back in the state right now, so when I fake to him, those linebackers are coming up so quick, and it just opens up so much,” MacNeil said. “It doesn’t just open up my run game, but it also opens up our passing game.”
“It starts up front, the O-line opening up those holes for (MacNeil and Counts),” Samson said. “One thing people kind of overlook is, (receiver Anthony Jones) is a great blocker. He opens up some big lanes when we break outside. All of our receivers take a lot of pride in blocking, and that’s a great thing to have.”
While Jones is happy to get dirty and contribute to the running game, the senior receiver is a terror for opponents out wide. Opposing defenses can try to stack the box to slow down Counts and MacNeil, but that’s when Jones is most dangerous. Teams leaving cornerbacks on an island to defend Jones one-on-one have seen little success, as Jones’s mix of side and speed is often too much to handle.
But it’s been an adjustment for Jones this season. After catching passes from Taylor Morton last season, Jones has had to build chemistry and rapport with MacNeil from the ground floor.
“I have so much confidence in (MacNeil). He’s a great quarterback. He’s came a long way,” Jones said. “It’s amazing to see what he’s done and what he’s capable of in the run game and in the pass game.”
“It’s been a huge learning experience with passing, with going through my progressions and my reads and making the right reads. It’s been a whole lot of fun,” MacNeil said.
Throughout the course of the season, MacNeil and Jones have continued to improve their connection. Now, MacNeil has the utmost confidence in his top target.
“It makes my job super easy when I know he’s going to come down with the ball. All I’ve got to do is get it in his general area,” MacNeil said. “You’ll hear him come up to me, ‘Just lob it up, I’ll come down with it. I’ll go up and get it for you.’ He’s got a lot of confidence, and it’s great to have him as a threat.”
Flathead hopes the connection between MacNeil and Jones will be on display frequently Friday night when the Braves travel to Bozeman to take on the top-ranked and unbeaten Hawks.
“They’re the No. 1 team and undefeated. We’ve got a big challenge, but I think our kids will be ready, our coaches will get us prepared,” Samson said. “Should be a great battle.”