BRIDGER — Jeremiah Paine has had a record-breaking season and career for the Westby-Grenora Thunder.
On Saturday afternoon, he added state champion to that list of accomplishments.
The Thunder defeated the Bridger Scouts 68-37 behind eight touchdown passes from Paine for the 6-Man state football championship. It is the first title for the Thunder, since forming as a co-op six years ago.
“We’ve waited all year for this,” Paine said. “We missed out last year, but we got it now and that’s all that matters.”
Paine came into the game as the all-time touchdown leader in 6-Man football with 145 passing touchdowns. He finishes his career with 153. He also finishes with the single-season record of touchdown passes with 69.
Did he expect to have that good of a game coming in?
“No,” he said. “I was just trying to play my best. I knew everyone else would bring it so that’s what we did. It turned out well … I’m not really worried about the records anymore. I don’t really care about them. It’s crazy. Our team is state champions and that’s all that matters.”
The Thunder (13-0) came up just short last year against Hot Springs in the title game. Saturday was the third time the Thunder played in the title game.
“It makes it twice as good knowing that we missed it last year but we fought back from adversity in losing some key seniors from last year,” Paine said. “We fought back and we got it.”
Westby-Grenora coach Troy Walters said when these seniors were in seventh grade, they went 0-9-1.
“For those guys, we’ve been here three times before and finally we got the third one,” Walters said. “What do they say? The third time is the lucky charm? So I guess we’re pretty happy.”
“And today, to go 13-0, it’s a big accomplishment for us because we started the season thinking we might make the playoffs,” Field added. “Coming into the state championship 12-0, you’re pretty excited to be here.”
Brandon Ledahl and Ridge Sargent each had three touchdown receptions while Cole Berg and Brian Field also each caught a score for the Thunder.
Bridger opened the scoring after Colter Zentner found Nick Althoff for a 5-yard touchdown. The Thunder came back quickly and two of Sargent’s touchdowns and Berg’s gave the Thunder a 22-6 first-quarter lead.
“Jeremiah is just so heads up and sees the field so well,” Walters said. “When you have a senior like that, who is the all-time leading (6-Man) touchdown passer in Montana history, you can trust that he’s going to make some plays for you. That was good to know and it’s always nice to have that. We’re going to miss him next year.”
The Thunder never let up thanks to big plays and tough defense. They picked Zentner off three times in the first half and eventually walked into halftime with a 46-19 lead.
Paine and Ledahl connected again on the first drive of the third quarter and Paine found him again later in the quarter to keep padding the Thunder’s lead.
Bridger didn’t quit, and with 4:57 left in the game Russell Zentner got a safety on Field and shortly after Colter Zentner found his brother Colby for a 35-yard touchdown to trim the lead to 60-37. Two plays later Paine found Sargent for the final score.
Field forced a late fumble and recovered it to seal the game for the Thunder.
“When I got it I picked it up and I was like, ‘What do I do now? Do I run it back? Do I fall?’ … When I went down I looked at the clock and I was so excited I didn’t know what to do,” Field said. “It feels amazing. My mind is jumping with excitement right now I don’t even know what to think.”
Colter Zentner finished with two touchdown passes and three touchdown runs for the Scouts (10-2). This was the first time Bridger was in a state championship game.
“Our seniors have been phenomenal and unbelievable,” Bridger coach Mike Mathis said. “The effort those guys have given all year and intensity they bring to the game and practice, the senior leaders, Colter Zentner, Nick Althoff and Russell Zentner in particular, have just been amazing. They’ve been great all four years of their career but this year in particular.”