Cowboys and Mustangs: Rural Montana kids are football greats |

Cowboys and Mustangs: Rural Montana kids are football greats

The mascots are more than just clever monikers.

Along an 80-mile swath of Eastern Montana between Miles City and Jordan, Highway 59 crosses wide open country that is home to ranchers, cowboys, cowgirls, and, not too very long ago, even wild horses.

This year the Miles City Cowboys and the Jordan Mustangs both brought home state championship football trophies for their respective Class A and 6-Man brackets, each on home turf. Both teams consisted of gridders who are no stranger to horses, cows, or a bit of hard work.

Derek Reis. Photo by Dana Phipps
Photo by Dana Phipps

Jordan, Mont., is about as rural as you can get in. The average population density of 0.274 inhabitants per square mile is the third lowest of any county in the contiguous United States (compared to the most populated, New York County, New York, with 69,500 people per square mile.) Some kids still board in town with relatives during the week to attend school, although it’s less common than it used to be.

Varsity coach of the Mustangs, Wyatt Colvin, says that, similar to most small towns in Eastern Montana, a majority of the kids on his team are farm and ranch kids. “These kids go to brandings every spring and wrestle calves – even the ones that aren’t on farms and ranches get hired for day work. They don’t shy away from work.”

The hardware was an exciting end to what was Colvin’s first year as head coach. A full-time rancher, he says coaching football is his “hobby.” It’s a hobby that consumes 5-hours-a-day, five days a week, as Colvin lives 38 miles from Jordan. “I leave about an hour before practice, and get home an hour after. “It’s a huge time commitment but it’s well worth it when you get a team like this and get to end a season like this,” says Colvin.

Jordan’s win was especially sweet this year as they bested long-time rival Wibaux in a rematch of last year’s state trophy, which the Longhorns had captured on their home turf winning 70 to 27.

On a perfect day for football, the Mustangs rang the scoreboard first then stampeded through the first quarter. Derek Reis came in with the first two touchdowns and Dawson Murnion added a third; they closed the first quarter 21 to 0. Wibaux got on the board with two touchdowns in the second, but the Mustang’s Edward Murnion rang up three touchdowns ending the first half 40-14. In the third quarter Cole Murion caught a touchdown and returned an exciting 35-yard fumble for a second TD. In the fourth Cole Murion caught for his third touchdown of the game. It was Ben McRae who had the final touchdown of the game – putting the score at 69-14.The team’s decision? To go for 1-point, not 2. Last year the Longhorn’s ended the game with 70 points on this side. This year, vindication would come in the reverse. The victory was had been secured long before Derek Reis caught for the final score of 70-14.

“This rivalry has been going on as long as I can remember,” says Colvin. “It was really good to get a win at home, in our first state championship ever played here.”

Only eight states have 6-man football teams; Montana has 49, second only to Texas.

“6-man is very fast, a very exciting game,” says Colvin. “There’s a lot of field and not many players out there. Speed is a key factor and we have some very fast and very tough kids. Our starters play on both sides of the ball. They might sit out a play or two here and there, but they basically play the whole game.”

In the Jordan area, the roots run as deep as the support. Four of the six starters on the Mustangs have the last name Murnion – two are brothers, two are first cousins, and all four are related along the family tree not too far back.

Following the win the Garfield County Historical Society posted on Facebook: “2019 has been a big year in Garfield County with the 6-Man State Champion football team and the 100th anniversary of the forming of Garfield County. This combination was mentioned at the game and that many of the players had ancestors living here 100 years ago.”

After doing a bit of research, it was discovered of the 16 players on the team all 16 had ancestors who were in Garfield County in 1919. It showed the day of the game. An estimated 900 people were at the game, in a county only home to 1,206.

“The fact that we had that many people show up for the game says a lot of people are proud of the kids that played that day,” says Colvin. “They are hard workers. They keep playing no matter how things are going – and this year things went really well.”

On the same day, farther south in the hub of most of the eastern part of the state, the Miles City Cowboys were playing for a packed house as well for the state Class A title. The Cowboys are no strangers to championships; this win would be their 10th state trophy in football but the first since 2010. The home team hosted Laurel and ended the game topping the Locomotives 35-7.

As a team the Cowboys had 478 total yards. Quarterback Carson Hunter was 14 of 17 for 285 yards. He threw for three touchdowns and also ran for two touchdowns. Jess Bellows had eight catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Aiden Barrows rushed 27 times for 139 yards. The Cowboy defense caused four turnovers – three of those fumbles and one an interception.

Jeff Regan, head coach of the Cowboys and a Miles City native, says the football program and culture at Custer County District High School is strong, and deeply supported by the community. It was evidenced on game day with blue and gold decorations up and down Main Street, a packed stadium and people standing three deep around the field. “It was just a really electric atmosphere and a great day for football. Our community really supported us well; we really couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Regan says.

Photo by all Out Photography
Photo by all Out Photography

Miles City is a community that is strongly influenced by the ag industry, even for those not involved first-hand. “If you go to a game, you’re going to see some cowboy hats,” Regan says.

Regan says although their team has a lot of “city kids” like himself, “there are a good number of guys whose families are ranchers or farmers.” He says the football program is used working with the 4-H kids on the team during county fair week – held the week before school starts in Miles City – so they can “go show their pigs or their cows.”

Logan Peila is one of those “country kids.” A senior, this was his third year playing varsity. Peila spent his youngest years on a ranch in Northern California and his family moved back to his dad’s hometown of Miles City when he was a kid. Today his family is involved with his grandparent’s ranch near Ismay. Peila says he enjoys getting to help with the ranch work – haying, working cattle and, as always, fixing things – any chance he gets. He says having a background in ranch work has made him a better player. “You kind of know what it’s like to have a tough job and have to do it. I think it impacts your work ethic, and I see that in other teammates from ag backgrounds too. We hope it makes us better players and we can inspire others on the team.”

Peila is also a track athlete and an FFA member. He plans to attend Chadron State College this fall and pursue an ag business degree. He said the championship game involved lots of emotions. “We’ve been thinking about this since our eighth grade year, knowing we had the ability to do this. When we finally got there, it was like, ‘Wow, we actually did it!’”

Peila says his team is like a family, and the support of the community has been incredible. “Miles City has always been a football town; at any home game we have the entire town behind us.”

In an era where participation in high school athletics is down for the first time in 30 years, according to the annual survey by the National Federation of State High Schools Associations, the football programs in Eastern Montana are holding strong and showing their grit.

It might not be a stretch to say it comes from a little dirt on their boots.

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