BUTTE – How about Montana Western?
Or perhaps Southern Oregon?
Maybe even Dickinson State University.
For that matter, how about all of the football teams in the Frontier Conference that don’t carry the nickname of Orediggers?
You can take your pick when trying to decide which school holds the distinction of being Montana Tech’s biggest and baddest football rival. But when it comes down to it, there is really no comparison.
It’s Carroll College.
Southern Oregon could look at Tech as a big conference rival. The road to the Frontier Conference championship used to go through Ashland, Oregon before the Orediggers redrew the map with a winner-take-all thriller at the end of the 2015 regular season. The Raiders came up short in their efforts to reclaim the top prize last season but still think that championship trophy will look better in their trophy case.
Montana Western, whose campus is about an hour south of Butte, is also considered a rival to Tech. Who can forget that 38-6 Week 1 blowout that the Bulldogs landed on the chin of the Orediggers in 2014? That loss started the Orediggers’ downward spiral that ended with a 1-9 record.
“Standing on the sideline the last couple of years, some of the loudest and hardest hits I’ve seen as a player and an administrator has been when Western shows up,” said recently appointed athletic director Matt Stepan, a former Montana Tech all-conference player. “They’re awful, awful tough. They bring a great crowd, a crowd that’s very spirited like our own.”
The Bulldogs, however, have not been able to maintain that level of success against the Orediggers and will have to rate as Tech’s second-largest rival.
Dickinson State rates as a part-time rival because the Blue Hawks have played Tech in the first round of the NAIA playoffs in each of the last two seasons. And lost both times.
The remaining Frontier Conference teams merit some mention because this will be the third straight year in which they’ll be trying to knock off the Orediggers.
But the biggest rival?
It’s Carroll College.
Don’t believe it? Just head out to Montana Tech’s Alumni Coliseum on Thursday night for the season-opening game between the Orediggers and the Fighting Saints.
“Proximity is one reason and the history of competition is another,” Orediggers head coach Chuck Morrell said as the reasons that this particular rivalry stands out. “The competition on this goes back long before I was here. It’s been one of the most oft-played games here in the state for a long time and there are kids on both sides of the ball who know each other and went to high school together.
“The coaches are very familiar with each other, so that’s what’s produced it. It didn’t just pop up as a rivalry. This has been a rivalry since long before I was around.”
The past history between the players wasn’t the only prevailing factor. Morrell was familiar with the Saints prior to his arrival in Butte.
“In my previous coaching job (at University of Sioux Falls) we played Carroll College a number of times,” Morrell added. “They were a championship-caliber program and we played them in a national championship a number of times so I understood the quality of their players and their coaching staff before I got here.
“Out of all the big games I think I’ve coached in, this is one of the most classic, big rivalries I’ve ever been a part of.”
While offensive coordinator Pete Sterbick didn’t have a history with Carroll College prior to joining Morrel’s staff, it didn’t take him long to become familiar with hype that surrounds this annual showdown.
“We’re two very different schools in two very different towns,” he said. “The rivalry factor hit me right when I got here and I embraced that right away. I got early on what an intense rivalry it is.
“They’re going to give us their best shot and hopefully we can give them ours.”
That Mayweather-McGregor sham from earlier this week was all about the hype than the actual competition, kind of like the WWE on steroids.
The Tech-Carroll game won’t be about theatrics. It’ll truly be a battle that will bring out the best in the 100-plus football players that grace the sidelines at Bob Green Field.
It’s been that way for years, and it will continue to be that way.
“It’s huge,” Stepan added. “Every game that we played felt like a conference-championship game, whether that was the first game of the year or the last game of the year; whether that game had playoff implications or not. It just had a different feel. It was electric.
“They played really hard, they were well-coached and they were a lot like us in a lot of ways.
“It’s just different. Every game is as important as the next but this one just feels different. It certainly is not one where you need to figure out how to get your guys motivated for it.”
The football programs at both schools have had their share of success in the conference. They’ve also done their share of knocking each other down a peg or two.
The Orediggers swept the Saints on their way to a 9-1 regular-season record in 2014, thanks in part to a memorable 42-7 thumping in which Nolan Saraceni ran for 273 yards. Saraceni’s performance included touchdown runs of 8, 38, 80 and 99 yards and the outcome had a rub-your-nose-in-it feel since it was played at Carroll’s Nelson Stadium.
Determined to not let that happen again, the Saints hosted the Orediggers in the 2016 season opener for both teams and put the clamps on Saraceni.
Saraceni took a beating in that contest and left the field at halftime with his right arm hanging at his side. He returned to action in the second half but it wasn’t the same.
The Saints overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit and won on Colter Hamel’s last-second 45-yard field goal. The teams combined for more than 700 yards of offense in that contest.
That turned out to be the Orediggers’ only blemish during the regular season, one which included a 34-15 revenge-match win in mid-October.
“That first game last year has still absolutely burned the entire way through,” Sterbick said. “We felt that the second time we played them was more indicative of the way things were but when you let a good program hang around, you see what can happen.”
Montana Tech defensive coordinator B.J. Campbell has seen and taken part of his share of rivalries and admitted that it’s hard to equate those from his past with the ‘Diggers-Saints clashes.
“As far as places I’ve been, it’s one of the best rivalries I’ve been involved with,” Campbell said of the Frontier matchup. “When I was at South Dakota, we had the USD-SDSU rivalry there. Here in Montana, this is about as big as you can get.”
Pride, bragging rights and perhaps the outcome of a few wagers will be up for grabs when the teams clash on Thursday night. But Morrell said that his players will need to get past the excitement, the atmosphere and the hype in order to be successful.
“We have to treat it as a competitive Frontier Conference game,” Morrell said. “We’ve got to come with the same mental approach to every single game. Of course, there are going to be rival games but if we get so over-hyped walking out onto the field and we’re not doing our base fundamentals and we’re not doing our jobs correctly and we let the atmosphere take over on us, then we’re not going to be very successful.”
For three hours on Thursday, the fans, parents, school administrators and well-wishers can drown themselves in the atmosphere and excitement that such a game brings to the table.
The players will have work to do.
Only when the latest chapter of this storied rivalry is complete will the players from both teams be able to circle Oct. 14 on their calendars, as that will be the date of this season’s Round 2.