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'Heck of an honor' for Missoula natives to help Montana back to FCS national championship

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Posted at 8:47 AM, Dec 28, 2023

MISSOULA — Tyler Flink remembers only one thing about Griz football when he was growing up in Missoula.

“Just winning. Winning, winning, that’s all I remember,” said Flink, one of three Missoula natives who are seniors on this year’s Montana football team.

“I don’t even remember coming to a game we lost, honestly. I don’t remember one. I’m sure there were, but I just remember winning here, and the fans, rabid fans going crazy. A lot of winning.”

Why would Flink, who graduated from Big Sky High School in 2018, remember anything else? The Griz were dominant during his childhood. They rarely lose at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but the stadium was especially hostile to visitors in the 2000s.

The decade ended with Montana losing only two home games from 2006 to 2009 — playoff games to Massachusetts in 2006 and Wofford in 2007 — and going an amazing 31-1 in Big Sky Conference games.

Griz fans know the 2008 and 2009 histories well, but for those who need refreshers: Montana went 9-0 at home both years, advancing to the FCS national championship game both seasons.

“I do remember them being really good,” said David Koppang, a Loyola Sacred Heart graduate and Griz safety. “I remember, I was so young I wasn’t smart, so I wouldn’t dress that smart to games, but I remember all those late games being super cold, all those home games. I remember Shann (Schillinger), Colt (Anderson), (Shawn) Lebsock, all those guys. I remember being young and wanting to be one of them one day. It’s awesome to be able to say that we’re at this point in the season and we get one more game.”

“When Flink and Koppang and I were younger, that’s when the Griz were in their pinnacle of dominance,” said Levi Janacaro, a Big Sky High alum who wears the legacy No. 37 on this year’s Griz team. “To be able to come in here — we committed here with that goal in mind, to get to the championship and to win the Big Sky — and this season we’ve done those things. And now we have a chance to go and win a championship, which is really cool. It’s a heck of an honor to be a part of this team.”

It’s come full circle now for the Missoula trio. Flink, Koppang and Janacaro grew up watching the Griz dominate under coach Bobby Hauck.

Now, in Hauck’s second stint at Montana, the Griz are back to the place he last led them in 2009.

“I think it’s really cool that for coach Hauck’s second stint, his first recruiting class here, as seniors now, we’re playing in the national championship,” Koppang said. “And I think it’s really cool the people who stayed and were committed to this program, we all bought in, worked our butts off to get to this point.”

And, just like in 2009, Montana advanced to the national championship by winning an unforgettable semifinal game inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. In 2009, the Griz rallied past Appalachian State — Andrew Selle finding Jabin Sambrano for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:30 remaining — in what many considered the greatest game in Wa-Griz history.

This year, the Griz topped North Dakota State in a double-overtime classic — Junior Bergen finding Keelan White for the game-deciding two-point conversion — in what many now consider the greatest game in Wa-Griz history.

“It’s awesome. I always thought, like, if you won a dramatic game and the fans, they storm the field, ‘Oh, that would be really cool.’ Then when it happened, it was overwhelming with the amount of people that are coming up, hugging you,” Janacaro said.

“Just to see the electricity around the fan base in Missoula and Griz Nation has been awesome to see the revival. Griz faithful is always loud and proud when we have a home game here, but to be able to win a lot of games and have home playoff games and really see the difference that they make and to kind of pay them back for all that they do for us by winning games has been really cool.”

Janacaro and this year’s Griz have rewarded their fans with another special season for the history books. They went undefeated at home, dismantled their rival to win the Big Sky Conference championship and won three home playoff games in front of raucous crowds.

Up next: The FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, where a throng of Griz fans will watch their team take on top-seeded and undefeated defending champ South Dakota State on Jan. 7.

“It means everything to me, growing up here, coming to all the home games and stuff,” Flink said. “It’s just been a blessing to do it with my best friends, my roommates, my teammates and live out my dream. It’s been awesome.”