Editor's note: "Football Around the 'Root" is a weekly preview series highlighting the Bitterroot Valley football teams suiting up each week on the gridiron with a lead feature and several storylines for the other area games.
In the final minute of last Friday's football game between Loyola Sacred Heart and Florence, all attention — from the crowd, to the players on the Falcons' home field — turned to the sidelines.
A Loyola victory, and the No. 1 seed from the Western B, was assured, as the Rams led the Falcons 43-27 and needed only to kneel the ball for the win. Even before the game, Florence knew it possessed its conference's No. 4 seed and would travel to face Big Timber this Saturday at 1 p.m.
The Falcons weren't sure, however, what was going on with their linebacker, their fullback and one of their team's spirited leaders, Kyler Alm.
"We're just going to pray for him and hope he's OK," Florence's quarterback Colby Kohlman said immediately after the game, as Alm was being loaded into the back of an ambulance.
It was a scary sight. Shortly after Kohlman connected with Levi Posey for an exciting 76-yard touchdown pass, the Falcons transitioned to their kickoff team. Alm came to the sidelines for a brief respite before returning to the field, where he unknowingly had been playing with an unseen injury.
He collapsed on the sidelines.
"(Alm) got to a point where his body said enough’s enough," Florence coach Pat Duchien said. "...His guardian angel was sitting right there on his shoulder saying it’s time for you to fall down and get you to the hospital."
Alm had suffered a subdural hematoma, where a collection of blood forms just outside the brain. Typically, the head injury is caused by blunt force trauma.
While the Florence coaches have studied film for its upcoming playoff matchup against the Sheepherders, they've spent time trying to see when Alm may have suffered the blow that triggered the injury. Alm was also one of the Falcons fitted with the new Riddell helmets the team was awarded in a grant earlier this season. The InSite helmet measures impact and signals an alert to coaches if a player has gone over a contact threshold.
There was no alert, and Alm seemed his usual hard-nosed self on the field all game.
"Really, you can’t point it out because Kyler is that type of kid that’s going to play fierce game in and game out," Duchien said. "As you watch him play through the rest of the game, he wasn’t missing many assignments. He’s a read and react kid, and we give him the leeway because he’s so good."
It's part of what made the end of the game so jarring. Not only was the injury unexpected, it happened to a kid that's simply tough as nails. The stocky junior lines up at linebacker at a listed 5-foot-4, 170 pounds and is in on just about every play he can be.
"He impresses me all the time. He's undersized and has to play 120 percent all the time just to get it done," Kyler's dad, Darin Alm, said.
Coach Duchien pointed to Kyler's toughness in how his body helped steady itself despite the bleak diagnosis. A subdural hematoma can be life threatening.
"Kyler, who he is, his body said 'No.' He leveled it off and we’re going to heal a little bit faster than what these doctors are saying," said Duchien, who — along with his coaching staff and Kyler's parents — waited at the hospital late into Saturday morning. "He’s a fighter. He fought."
The Florence football team, which gathered in a tight huddle and appeared to offer a prayer after the Loyola game, all visited Kyler in the hospital. Players from Loyola — Florence's long-standing rival — showed up too, offering words of encouragement and other tidings.
"I just want to thank everybody. Even Loyola, some of their star players came up to his room and gave him a poster board and gift cards. Just the outreaching of the community has been amazing," Darin said.
The support and Kyler's strength has led to another breakthrough. After going home from the hospital on Tuesday, Kyler was cleared to travel to Big Timber and root on his Falcons in their first-round playoff game.
"The doctors said he could go to the playoff game if he sits in a vehicle and isn’t overstimulated," Darin said. "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."
It's a Florence team that Kyler and his dad wanted to stress "has a great chance" to be successful in the playoffs. At 6-3 overall out of arguably the toughest conference in Class B, the Falcons should be a force to reckoned with. Coach Duchien said the squad just needs to limit the timely turnovers that have plagued his squad in its three losses.
"Turnovers are going to happen, it’s just getting lucky and when and where they happen," Duchien said. "No picks flipping field position and no more fumbles on sustained drives. It’s going to be a key for us winning that one for sure."
Florence will also need to find a way to run around 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior defensive end Ethan Bullock.
"He looks a lot bigger than 220, too. He plays like he’s 295," Duchien said. "He’s an animal, he’s a beast. He’s going to have to be accounted for on both sides of the ball but predominately on defense. We’ve put some stuff in place to be able to control him with our running game for sure."
The Sheepherders also have last year's Class B runner-up at state in the 100-meter dash to account for at wide receiver in Casey Gunlikson.
The Falcons' skill position players have been tough all year, though, and Duchien said he was impressed with his team's secondary against Loyola last week.
And, Duchien added, his team might be playing just a bit harder this week.
"They’re playing for a little more this weekend," Duchien said, alluding to Alm. "It should be fun to see how they come out in the game."
Elsewhere around the Bitterroot...
Corvallis at Frenchtown, Friday, 7 p.m.
Record: Corvallis 5-4 overall; Frenchtown 7-2 overall.
Last Week: Corvallis beat Butte Central, 52-32, clinching a berth in the Class A playoffs. Frenchtown topped Stevensville 49-10
With Stevensville out of the playoffs and No. 1-ranked Hamilton on a first-round bye, Corvallis takes center stage out of the Class A in the Bitterroot Valley for the first-round of the state playoffs.
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And the Blue Devils draw a tough rematch against their own Southwest A cohort, Frenchtown.
"They're excited to get a second shot at them," said Corvallis coach Clayton Curley, whose squad lost to these same Broncs, 31-8 in week 5.
That final score doesn't tell the full story, however. Corvallis actually led that game 8-7 at halftime, and since then, the Devils have restructured their offensive line. The move has been pivotal for the triple-option team that scored 120 points across its final three games of the season.
"They're a young crew up front. We have three sophomores on our offensive line and one junior and only one senior in Garrett Brown, so they're really young and they're starting to gel," Curley said. "It's that time of the year, though, where we're expecting our sophomores to play like juniors, our juniors we expect to play like seniors and Garrett Brown we expect to play at the college level.
"We're getting to that point where we're feeling pretty good with what we have up front."
Even with the change up front, Corvallis' bread and butter will be the same it has been all season — a heavy dose of Liang Liedle and Hunter Pinheiro. Last week, in a must-win to clinch a playoff spot against Butte Central, the two combined for 310 yards rushing and seven touchdowns as the Devils won 52-32.
It'll be no surprise if those two play a key role in helping the Blue Devils clinch their first-ever playoff win in Class A. Corvallis, which has been to the playoffs two of the last three seasons, moved from Class B to Class A in 1996.
"Those five seniors we have that are playing, especially Pinheiro and Liedle — a lot of people call them the two-headed snake or two-headed monster. They are getting 95 percent of the carries," Curley said.
"This is where they want to be and they want to win a game in the playoffs."
Western C 8-man
Darby at Shelby, Saturday, 1 p.m.
Record: Darby 5-4 overall; Shelby 7-0 overall.
Last week: Darby topped St. Ignatius 56-28 to clinch a playoff berth, Shelby completed its undefeated regular season with a 34-0 win over Great Falls Central.
Darby's ascension to the Class C 8-man postseason this year — its first appearance in nearly three decades — has been almost miraculous.
And for the small Southwest Montana town, the Tigers playoff berth is incredibly uplifting.
"It’s a huge deal to the community, to the kids and everything else. It’s a big deal," Darby coach Jeff Snavely said. "I’ve had people I don’t even know in town come up to me and tell me ‘this is awesome.’"
It's difficult to know where to start to explain how Darby has made its way to the Western C 8-man's No. 4 seed and a first-round playoff game against unbeaten Shelby on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The journey started in the early morning of Friday, Oct. 5, just hours before an eventual loss to No. 1-ranked Flint Creek.
That Friday morning, the Tigers and the Darby community welcomed home Jake "Sunshine" Sanders, who had been in Houston battling Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin’s T-cell Lymphoma for the last year. The Darby graduate and former center on the Tigers wanted to be close to the faces and football players he considered family.
That night, and throughout the remainder of the season, Darby football players wore bright green accessories along with their typical red and black uniforms to honor "Sunshine."
Sanders passed away the following Wednesday.
Two days later, the Tigers had planned a halftime commemoration for "Sunshine" which included retiring his numbers and setting off bright green sky lanterns for their fallen comrade.
But it came in an unusual setting. Instead of a game against Charlo, the Tigers held an intra-squad scrimmage. The scheduled Vikings — who were the No. 2 team in the conference at the time — were forced to forfeit the game due to an inability to field a full team after several players were ineligible to compete.
Charlo forfeited the remainder of the season, leaving the No. 4 seed up for grabs in Darby's regular season finale against St. Ignatius.
"It's been the craziest year I've ever had coaching," coach Snavely said. "Normally you get done with your season, you’re hoping for playoffs and it doesn’t work out.
"And then this year, what happened to Jake, what happened with Charlo and having a chance to go to playoffs. It’s been a roller coaster ride every week."
The Tigers beat Mission 56-28, clinching a playoff spot one day after Sanders' memorial service.
"I’ve been nervous for a lot of games in my playing career, in my coaching career, but not as nervous as I was for that game," Snavely said. "I wanted it so bad for the kids. We all wanted it so bad for the community."
According to Snavely, it's the first time Darby has made the playoffs since the clas of 1991-92 complete the feat.
For Darby's effort this year, the Tigers draw the North's No. 1 team, Shelby, playing in its first season at the Class C 8-man level. Last year, Shelby played Eureka in the Class B state title game.
"If you look at their film they have 31 kids on their sidelines, another four or five in jerseys and then they have eight on the field," Snavely said, illustrating the size of the impending and unbeaten Coyote squad.
To compare, Darby has 23 kids on its roster.
But coach Snavely said his boys believe they belong. With a senior class that Snavely has coached all four years — including the electrifying Dylan Parks — he's excited.
After all, his Tigers are on a pretty incredible — and improbable — run.
"They’re pumped, they’re ready," Snavely said. "To go down and beat a No. 1 seed, what kind of chaos that would create?"