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Thank goodness for the fall sports season in the Bitterroot Valley. As a University of Montana graduate and Griz football fan, I had a bit of a rough year with my rooting interest (it's never pleasant when your team loses to the Bobcats and misses the playoffs).

But the fall high school sports calendar in Ravalli County offered plenty of heartwarming moments to remind myself why I'm a sports fan.

Now, reporters are supposed to be impartial, reporting fairly to any two teams that suit up and compete against each other. Having a beat in a tight-knit community, however, does lend itself to developing special bonds with the coaches and athletes that call the Bitterroot Valley home. 

See, most sports reporters wanted to get into the business because they were fans first.

And as a sports fan, the prep athletes up and down U.S. Highway 93 gave this fan a lot to cheer for.

Even if I was just standing on the sidelines scribbling away at my notepad or staring behind the lens of a camera.

***

In Darby, the Tiger football team served as rallying point for a community in mourning. When the late Jake "Sunshine" Sanders returned home to the small Southwestern Montana burg, he received a hero's welcome, with former football teammates and townspeople lining the streets. 

And on the Tigers' senior night, Darby — as one — had its chance to say goodbye to Sunshine.

From that scrimmage, which came about from an opponent forfeit, Darby went on to clinch its first playoff berth since the early 1990s. The miraculous turn of events made it hard to separate the sports realm from reality.

"You look at it and you can't help but think, 'Did Sunshine have a hand in this?'" Darby coach Jeff Snavely said.

It's moments like those that give sports fans — and people — goosebumps. Sports, simply put, reflect our humanity.

***

Moments Like:

The Florence football team rallying around one of its own, Kyler Alm, who collapsed on the sidelines in the final minutes of the Falcons rivalry game against Loyola Sacred Heart.

The Rams, who led, respectfully kneeled away the remaining time on the clock while the Florence players on the field stared at an approaching ambulance. Alm, one of the team's starting linebackers and running backs, had suffered a subdural hematoma.

From there, football became secondary as the tough junior fought the scary diagnosis in the hospital. Teammates and coaches — from both squads that played on Friday night — rallied to his bedside.

And Alm recovered. In fact, he was able to make the trip to root on his Falcons in the first round of the playoffs. 

"The doctors said he could go to the playoff game if he sits in a vehicle and isn’t overstimulated," Kyler's dad, Darin, said ahead of Florence's matchup with Big Timber. "I told them ‘You don’t know this kid, he’ll probably be trying to get on the field.’"

"...He's all about making the team better."

***

Moments like: 

Corvallis football winning its first-ever Class A playoff game against favored Frenchtown. Corvallis volleyball, Corvallis golf and the Corvallis girls cross country team all bringing home the bronze trophy at their respective state tournaments. The shade of the trophy served as triumph for some Blue Devil squads while providing motivation for all in future fall seasons.

Moments like:

The Stevensville boys' golf team bringing home a third-place trophy — the first time a Yellowjackets boys' golf squad has brought home some state hardware. They stood alongside the Hamilton boys' team, which placed second, on the podium. For the friendly Bitterroot rivals — which took a combined-team photo at the Hamilton Golf Club — it was something the entire county could celebrate.

There were moments of individual successes, the kind Hamilton soccer players Rylee Wiediger and Olivia Zepeda found all season long in clinching a state playoff berth. Zepeda herself nearly broke the state record for assists in a season.

There were also moments of heartbreak, particularly for two squads that once again fell one win short of winning it all.

Moments like:

Florence volleyball's second straight run to the Class B state title game. In 2017, the Falcons' charge came after a first-round loss at the state tournament that ended in an improbable championship match appearance against powerhouse Huntley Project.

In 2018, the Falcons' second straight trip to the season's final game seemed more certain. Florence went undefeated through the regular season — the Falcons dropped just three non-tournament sets — and Florence went unbeaten on the first day of tournament play.

Huntley Project again, however, hoisted the first-place trophy, topping Florence in the title match.

Moments like:

In Hamilton, the No. 1 ranked Broncs seemed poised to capture a Class A football crown one season after falling to Columbia Falls in the 2017 state title game.

The Broncs had the state's best offense, in more ways than one. They beat C. Falls in the state semifinals, atoning for the 2017 loss to the reigning champion Wildcats.

And the Broncs were undefeated (11-0) headed into the state title game, one they hosted at the newly finished Hamilton Athletic Complex.

Hamilton ran into an equally determined Billings Central squad in the 2018 championship game, however. The squad from the eastern half of the state had been bounced from the 2017 playoffs by Hamilton.

A Rams rushing attack that amassed over 400 yards on the ground slowed the Broncs just enough in the chipper, and it was Billings Central that completed the redeeming undefeated dream season (12-0 overall) with a 28-21 win.

That matchup officially ended the fall sports season. After the game, Hamilton senior Tyler Barnes stood outside the locker room with friends and family offering hugs and support on a great season — and it was a great season, even though it ended on a loss.

So how do you sum it up?

"I couldn't be prouder. This was my family for the last few months," Barnes said, pointing to his fellow comrades standing around a field they weren't quite ready to leave.

***

Just like an athlete, there are shots that sports writers miss. I certainly have moments I wish I could get back (I'm writing directly to you Darby and Victor volleyball fans. I hope to see more of you this basketball season).

But the best thing about sports is that they aren't always about the wins and the losses. Sports provide the opportunity to try, and they allow for the special moments that happen within that competition.

So thank you, Bitterroot Valley, for a great fall sports season. I can't wait to see what the winter season has in store.

*Editors note: All the stories and moments of the 2018 fall season referenced to in this article have been linked in the online version.

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