Montpelier isn’t exactly the most well-known of cities in Idaho.
It sits in the southeastern portion of the state along the Utah and Wyoming borders. Pocatello and Logan (UT) are both 70-plus miles in either direction. And outside of nearby popular summer tourist-destination Bear Lake, there really isn’t much to do in town other than bowling.
“We get a lot of, ‘Who is Bear Lake now? Where are they from? Where is this at?,’” Bear Lake football coach Ryan Messerly said. “I know a lot of Boise teams that have probably never heard of Montpelier, Idaho.”
The Bear Lake High School football team’s improbable run this season has gotten more eyes on the community of nearly 3,000 residents like never before.
The Bears (9-1), who own the longest winning streak in the classification at nine games, will play for their first-ever state title against four-time champion and two-time reigning runner-up Firth (8-2) in the Class 2A finals Thursday at Holt Arena.
“I’ve had some people I don’t even know coming up and just congratulating me,” Bear Lake senior quarterback Tayson Neal said. “I’ve already gotten countless texts from people saying they’ll be there and good luck. They’re getting my number somehow.
“We’ve had just so many people come to our games and root us on. It’s been cool because it’s brought everybody together and I love that.”
The town and the program are not used to the attention this late into the year.
That's because from 1985 to 2011, Bear Lake only qualified for state six times. Most of that came during Messerly’s playing days in the late 1990s, which happened to coincide with the start of Snake River's multi-year title run and national-best 54-game winning streak.
However, starting in 2000, the program went through a tough stretch. It failed to make the state playoffs in 11 out of the next 12 seasons.
Messerly took the reins in 2014 after spending five seasons as an assistant. He had Bear Lake back in the semifinals for the first since his senior season (1998) during his third season.
Bear Lake followed with only one winning season over the next four years, though.
“We look at it as being isolated on where we are. There’s not a metropolis we can pull kids from. The closest school is Soda Springs, and they’re kind of our rival. We’re so close to the Wyoming and Utah borders that we don’t really have any sway there,” Messerly said. “So, really what we have in the valley is what we have to work with. Some years there’s only a couple of seniors, and some years we have 12-13 seniors.”
This season was made up of the latter.
From Pop Warner to now high school, the 12-man senior class has won titles at each stop along the way. They helped win five out of the last six games last season to clinch just the Bears' fourth semifinal appearance in 36 years..
So, with all but two starters and nine all-conference players returning, expectations were high this fall.
“It’s an awesome group because they’ve been playing sports since fourth grade. Not just some of them, but all of them,” Messerly said. “They’re friends on and off the field. They truly do have a pretty cool bond. You can tell there’s a lot of chemistry and a lot of high IQ.”
But the Bears weren’t even ranked in the preseason state media poll. They also didn’t do much to change people’s minds after a 24-22 loss on a last-second field goal miss to perennial power North Fremont, which had advanced to the state semifinals five years in a row.
Nevertheless, popular opinion changed just four weeks later.
Three-time defending state champion West Side hadn’t lost in more than three years. It was riding a then state-best 35-game winning streak coming into Montpelier on Sept. 23.
Bear Lake jumped out to a 20-7 lead at the break. But the Pirates rallied in the second half and tied the game at 20 apiece to force overtime. They would have won in regulation had the Bears not blocked an extra point with a little more than five minutes remaining. Each team scored a touchdown in overtime, but instead of going for the PAT kick like West Side did, Bear Lake elected to try and win the game right then and there.
The gamble paid off with Neal hitting senior wide receiver Tyler Beresford in the end zone for the two-point conversion - and 28-27 win. It became the first Class 2A team to beat the Pirates in four years.
“Once we beat them, that just boosted our confidence for sure,“ Neal said. “We already had a lot of that in ourselves, obviously, but that really took it to a whole new level I think. We really believed from that point on we could actually win a state championship.”
It carried over to three more wins to allow the Bears to snap the Pirates’ four-year reign atop the South East Idaho Conference for their first league title since 2016. They also finished No. 1 in both the state media and the SBLive Idaho polls going into the playoffs.
A first-round bye, along with a 26-point win over a Kellogg team that had one of the nation’s leading receivers in Kolby Luna (95 receptions, 1,753 yards, 21 TDs), set up the much-anticipated rematch with West Side in the semifinals. The game ended up playing out almost the exact same way.
Bear Lake went into the locker room up 21-7 before two second-half touchdowns from the Pirates forced the extra period.
“I wish the recent Powerball drawing was then because I would have bought a ticket that night,” Messerly said. “What are the odds of us playing with the same exact outcome? It was nerve-racking to say the least.”
West Side scored first in overtime, but failed to convert on a two-point conversion when Bryson Crane stopped running back Parker Moser inches short of the goal line. The Pirates led, 27-21.
Crane was the star on Bear Lake's offensive possession in overtime, grabbing a touchdown pass with one hand in the corner of the end zone. He was also the long snapper on the PAT kick that won it, 28-27.
“We had half the stands at Holt Arena,” Messerly said. “We’re used to traveling an hour and a half if you want to go to a Costco or a Wal-Mart or a Home Depot. But it’s been impressive to see the community rally behind what these guys can do.”
But despite all of their success, including already beating Firth, 21-14, in early September, the Bears still feel like the underdogs. And that’s perfectly fine with them.
“We’ve used that for years and just kind of owned it,” Messerly said. “You can’t get any more southeast Idaho than we are. There’s no major newspapers around here. We’re so isolated that we don’t mind playing the underdog role and kind of wearing that as a badge sort of thing.”
So it’s more about the journey for them rather than being put back on the map.
“Winning state would obviously be a phenomenal experience,” Messerly said. “But really we’re going to remember this journey more than the end game. These guys will talk about this for the rest of their lives.”
(Featured photo by Todd Beresford)