In 1991, the Great Falls football team won the 1A state championship. Danny Sawyer’s team had just 22 players on the roster.
Twenty-five years later, the school plans to honor that championship team this season. The timing is almost perfect; this season’s football roster is only 19 names long. John Barrett’s team can take encouragement from the accomplishments of Sawyer’s bunch, though success for this year’s squad may be measured differently.
Sawyer’s team is also a reminder that low numbers of players are not a new challenge for Great Falls football.
Looking at 21 rosters in The Herald’s high school football previews from the last 28 years, the Red Devils averaged 36 players per year. Some seasons yield higher numbers than others – the 2005 and 2006 teams consisted of 50 and 53 players. But more often than not, Red Devil rosters don’t stretch to 40.
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By the end of last season, former coach Kenneth Schofield’s team suited up 22 kids, only to lose five players before the 1A state playoffs and forfeit its first round contest against McCormick.
With only 19 players – six seniors, seven juniors, three sophomores, and three freshman – this season’s roster might be the smallest the school has had in recent history.
“Our attention is to the ones that are here, not the one’s that aren’t,” Barrett said.
Looking to bring some excitement to the program and put his own stamp on the Red Devils, Barrett implemented a new hybrid air raid offense drawn from his experience the last few seasons as an assistant at Northwestern.
Aaron Rice said the offense has changed a lot. Rice will be playing linebacker, safety and corner back this season for the Red Devils.
Perhaps more important than the new offense, Barrett is cross-training players. Every Red Devil will play both sides of the football.
“This (playing both ways) is gonna help us get through the game better,” said Rice. “We aren’t going to be nearly as tired as the other teams.”
In most matchups, Great Falls will probably be outnumbered by its opponents. Still, having 19 players that can all play multiple positions is a safety net – making up for potential injuries later in the season.
“At the end of the day, this is a players’ game, it’s about the players,” said Barrett. “Our job is to put them in a situation to be as successful as they can.”
Comparisons between the 1991 and 2016 teams may be unfair. That ‘91 team consisted of men, not boys, in the words of Barrett. He didn’t mean that as a slight against his own team, but more of a compliment to Sawyer’s team that went 15-0 and beat Timmonsville on a last-second, game-winning 2-point conversion to claim Great Falls’ lone state title in the desegregated era.
Trailing Timmonsville 14-7 late in the game, the Red Devils cut into the Whirlwinds’ lead when Duane Harrison caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Tim Belk with 38 seconds left. Trailing 14-13, Sawyer had to decide whether to kick the extra point and likely send the game to overtime, or go for the win. He chose the latter and Bernard Gaston punched into the left side of the end zone for the game-winning points to cap an unbeaten season.
Barrett and his plucky bunch have a season full of adversity ahead of them – just like any high school football team. Maybe Sawyer unwittingly suggested a team motto with his quote to reporters after the Red Devils’ title-winning 2-point conversion:
“No guts, no glory baby.”