DILLON — Laurel's offense put the Locomotives in position to advance to its first championship game in 17 years.
Its defense then made sure that the victory was preserved.
With a two-possession lead in hand late in the game against Dillon, the Locomotives defense delivered two critical turnovers in the fourth quarter to stymie a comeback bid by the Beavers and seal a 21-12 victory in a Class A semifinal on Friday at Vigilante Stadium in Dillon.
With the win, Laurel ran its overall record to 9-1 while ending the Beavers season at 9-2. Dillon was in the hunt for its fourth Class A championship this decade.
"I'm excited," said Laurel coach Mike Ludwig. "I don't know if it's sunk in quite yet. I'm just proud of our players. It's not easy to make a state title game."
The Locomotives will face the winner of Saturday's other semifinal clash between Miles City and Hamilton in the title game next Saturday. Laurel will be looking for its first Class A crown since 2002—which is also the last time Laurel appeared in the championship—and its second title overall.
Laurel rolled to a 21-6 halftime lead before the two teams got caught up in a stalemate that saw the teams combine for just six point in the second half on a Dillon touchdown in the third quarter.
"We came out and put 21 points up and, and I was like 'Oh, this is gonna be like last week,'" Ludwig said, referring to the Locomotives 50-0 shutout over Libby in the quarterfinals. "But Dillon fought back."
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Holding on to its 21-12 lead midway through the final quarter, Laurel snagged an interception to halt a promising Dillon drive. With under two minutes remaining, the Locomotives defense recovered a Beavers fumble in Laurel territory to ice the win.
While the loss was certainly disappointing for Dillon, McRae tipped his cap to Laurel's team and also expressed pride in his program which built upon last season's quarterfinal exit from the playoffs.
"Give credit to Laurel," McRae said. "They played fast and physical. We just couldn't push the ball in there on a few drives.
"But we have great kids that care and don't take things for granted. I'm very fortunate to be a part of it. It was a tough day but I'm proud of our team and our coaching staff and community."
With Miles City and Hamilton both seeded higher than Laurel, the Locomotives will have to travel for next week's title game. Ludwig knows the mindset that his team is going to need.
"We'll be road warriors," Ludwig said.