The long threatening storm hanging over Libby Friday afternoon broke just before kickoff, letting loose a deluge upon the Loggers and their Frenchtown rivals in the final regular season game of the year.
The driving rain and howling wind sent fans scurrying and turned umbrellas inside out. It forced the crew in the press box to slide open windows to improve visibility. And it transformed the already roughed up field into a muddy quagmire.
All told, it was exactly what Loggers head coach Neil Fuller wanted out of the weather.
“I’m glad we got these conditions, [Frenchtown] has a lot of speed,” he said after Libby walked off the field with an 8-6 victory over the Broncs. “The weather really saved us.”
It quickly became clear that the mud, rain and wind would play an outsized role in the game. With few ill-fated exceptions in the first half, the two squads stuck to the ground, trying to pound through the grime and slime.
The 7-2 Loggers got their first break toward the end of the first quarter. After small gains on the ground by sophomore Ayden Williamson and junior Dawson Young, Libby saw a promising drive stall. Attempting to go for it in a fourth down and short situation about midfield, the Loggers drew a false start penalty.
A well-placed punt, though, put the Broncs on their own one-yard line. And the Logger defense took advantage. A half-dozen blue and yellow clad piled on the ball in the end zone, giving Libby a 2-0 lead that would stand until the fourth quarter.
The Loggers’ tenuous lead looked ever more doubtful as the Broncs let loose their passing game. Senior Cade Baker availed himself of the improving conditions to connect time and again with senior Hank Rugg. The tight end came into the game with 125 receiving yards and averaging more than 15 yards a catch.
The Loggers defense hung on, tripping up the rolling Broncs offense.
“Our defense played outstanding the whole night,” Fuller said. “They kept us in the game.”
But a key injury early in the fourth quarter put the outcome of the game in doubt. Swarmed by Broncs, quarterback Jeff Offenbecher went down hard. Helped off the field by Libby’s coaching staff, the senior, who made critical plays on both sides of the ball, later was taken to the hospital.
“He was doing a great job on defense,” said Fuller, unable to provide an update on Offenbecher’s condition at the game’s end. “We can’t afford to lose him.”
Junior Jay Beagle, who already had seen action under center during the evening, took over the offense. With the defense successful once again in keeping the Broncs in check, Beagle turned to Young to move the Loggers upfield.
And Young suddenly parted the Broncs defensive line. After churning away for a first down on two five-yard carries, the junior shot up the middle of the field like a rocket. During the crucial drive, he would have one more breakout run, streaking down the sideline to the Broncs 18-yard line.
“It was pretty decent,” the junior said of his performance after the game. “Our [offensive] line manned up and took it up to the house. If the line wasn’t any good, then I wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”
Teammate Williamson eventually crossed into the endzone, putting the Loggers up 8-0. But the elation did not last long. The extra point attempt went sour and the Broncs returned the kickoff for a 70-yard touchdown. Although Frenchtown failed to tie the game up, they remained in range as the clock ticked down.
Though Libby took possession with just minutes to go, a fumble gave Frenchtown one more shot at the win.
The Loggers defense, coupled with a plethora of penalties, forced the Broncs into a second down and 60 yards situation. An interception by Chandler Bower on a do-or-die toss let Libby run the clock out for the win.
The victory, on senior night, puts Libby in position to welcome Butte Central to town for the first round of the Class A Division playoffs Nov. 2. The 5-4 Maroon-topped Columbia Falls 21-14 to earn the sixth seed in the postseason tournament.
Young summed up the Loggers strategy heading into the playoffs succinctly.
“Work hard,” he said. “That’s it.”