The heart of the Heat

Hot Springs falls to Thunder in 6-Man playoffs


November 14, 2019

John Hamilton

SAVAGE HEAT SOPHOMORE Jack McAllister fends off a tackle attempt by MonDak's Keegan Nelson during playoff action in Hot Springs Saturday.

HOT SPRINGS – They played with a lot of heart and a lot of smarts but, in the end, flesh and bone can carry you only so far. The simple laws of physics involved in the playing of football, including mass and the forces exerted through rapid acceleration and sudden, violent collisions of moving bodies of variable sizes also comes into consideration.

Faced with all that and still being able to stare down defeat with a valiant effort in the face of long odds is the mark of true champions. A mark coaches Jim Lawson and Andrew Leichtnam's Hot Springs Savage Heat boys proudly bear.

The never-say-die Savage Heat lost 48-12 to the visiting MonDak Thunder in the Spa City Saturday in the quarterfinal round of the Montana 6-Man playoffs, ending Hot Springs' latest, greatest grid season. The Heat, ranked No. 2 in Montana in the final regular season poll, finish play with a sparkling 10-1 record.

Hot Springs football teams have become accustomed to unprecedented success over the last decade under the guidance of Lawson and Leichtnam. The Heat endured a one-year break from the 6-Man game when they were forced into the 8-Man ranks for one chaotic season in 2017, but have otherwise been one of the best 6-Man teams in Montana.

Sanders County Ledger canvas prints

The Heat won Hot Springs' seventh Western conference regular season title in eight campaigns as a 6-Man entity this fall. During this era, Hot Springs has played in an amazing total of 22 playoff games over the years, including 20 on their home field in the Spa City, and claimed State C titles in 2012 and 2016.

Which leads us to this year's edition of Savage Heat gridiron excellence.

Out-manned and significantly out-sized by the Thunder, a co-op program of schools from Westby, in far-off northeastern Montana, and Grenora, in far-off northwestern North Dakota, the Heat tried, tried and tried some more but could not quite solve the bigger, deeper Thunder.

"We knew this could be a challenging game, the teams from the east are very good this year," Lawson said. "We did the best we could but their size and strength were pretty tough to overcome."

Also hampering the Heat late this season was the loss of tough-as-nails player Luke Waterbury, who was shelved for the season with shoulder problems several weeks ago, limiting the Savage Heat's pool of players significantly.

In spite of these factors, the feisty Savage Heat stayed in the game early but the Mon-Dak boys eventually managed to take full control late in the first half. The biggest single reason the Thunder won, Ridge Sargent started Mon-Dak off by making an interception in the end zone to end Hot Springs' first meaningful drive of the game, giving the Thunder a first down at their own 15-yard line.

Sanders County Ledger Garage Sale Special

On second down from there, Sargent streaked 65 yards for the game's first touchdown and Eric Field added the two-point conversion kick to make the score 8-0 Mon-Dak with 5:42 left in the first quarter.

Early in the second quarter, Jerod Mueller scored for Mon-Dak on a three-yard run to make the score 14-0 Thunder.

Refusing to go away without a fight, the Heat then put together a scoring drive, capped by a four-yard touchdown down pass from Brandon Knudsen to Lincoln Slonaker to make the score 14-6 Mon-Dak.

Quickly dousing Hot Springs' hopes, Sargent then ripped off another big run going 64 yards on the ensuing kickoff to put the Thunder back up 20-6, 22-6 by the time Field converted the conversion kick.

Again, the Heat answered, overcoming a couple of costly penalties to score again, this time on a beautiful pass over the middle from Knudsen to Kyle Lawson, who held on to the ball at the goal line in spite of being hit hard by two Mon-Dak d-backs as he pulled down the catch, making the score 22-12 with 3:23 left in the first half.

Unfortunately for the Heat and their fans, Mon-Dak scored three more quick touchdowns before the half to largely settle the outcome, taking a 42-12 lead into halftime.

Sargent was again the main culprit for the Thunder, first scoring on a 46-yard pass from Darian Holecek and then on a 29-yard run. Keegan Nelson scored Mon-Dak's final touchdown of the first half on a 38-yard run with only 3.2 seconds showing on the clock.

"We had a few times there where if we could have made a stop it might have changed things some," Lawson said. "That interception on the first drive of the game kind of hurt. If we had been able to punch it in, that could have changed the way things went after that."

Sargent closed out game scoring with an 18-yard touchdown run in third quarter.

The Heat never gave up but the odds were clearly stacked against them against this eastern Montana team, which actually finished third in the toughest 6-Man division in Montana this year. The teams that finished ahead of Mon-Dak in the east were Jordan and Wibaux, and all three teams are in the semifinals next week.

Mon-Dak will visit Wibaux and Jordan will travel to Big Sandy in those semifinals. The Thunder obviously travel well as evidenced by their charter bus and loyal followers, a few dozen of whom traveled the 650-some miles required with the team.

The game will serve as the latest chapter in what is becoming a storied rivalry between Hot Springs and Mon-Dak. The Heat in fact, beat the Thunder in Plentywood in the 2016 State 6-Man championship, and have played them several times over the years in the post season.

The loss should not overshadow several standout performances by the Savage Heat. Senior quarterback Brandon Knudsen completed his outstanding career in style, completing 28 of 36 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to pulling down a team-high 10 tackles on defense.

Kyle Lawson caught an amazing total of 16 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown, Jack McAllister had eight catches for 57 yards and Slonaker four catches for 30 yards and a touchdown.

McAllister and Lawson, already seeming like grizzled veterans but actually still only sophomores, pulled down nine tough tackles apiece. Knudsen and Waterbury were the only seniors for this season's Savage Heat.

Coach Lawson loved what his team gave him this fall. "This is a great bunch of kids," he said. "We had a good run and are proud of what we accomplished."

John Hamilton

Hot Springs' Brandon Knudsen scrambles for yards while MonDak's Jack Solberg reacts.


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