What was supposed to start off as a learning experience on a slightly above average football team has turned into a dream season for former Ashland High lineman Matt Lipski.
A freshman at the University of Montana, Lipski will be the backup right guard when the Grizzlies play top-ranked James Madison on tonight in the FCS national semifinals.
Though No. 2 on the depth chart, the 6-foot-9, 320-pound former Ashland High all-star expects to see action only on field goal and PAT attempts. He'll also play some special teams on the Grizzlies' kickoff return team.
Barring an injury, Lipski says, he will get only a few snaps at most with Montana's regular offense.
"Our line coach (Pete Kaligis) likes to keep the same order," says Lipski, who expects to eventually play tackle at Montana. "As long as they're playing well, he doesn't want to mess with it."
Still, Lipski, who also played post for the Ashland boys basketball team, is just happy to be getting in games so soon for a national title contender.
"Coming in, I really didn't expect it," Lipski says of his playing time, rare for a true freshman at the big-college level. "But I went through fall camp and we had an older guy go down with an injury and I was one of the guys that they chose to give some time to this year."
Adjusting to the college game has been a challenge, but Lipski says his experience playing for Ashland High head coach Charlie Hall helped ease the transition. Hall, a former offensive coordinator for Northern Arizona University (another FCS team), brought a sophisticated offense to Ashland when he was hired in 2005.
"That definitely helped me get to the next level," Lipski says. "There are a lot of similarities. Some of the techniques and schemes are certainly similar. But obviously, they're a little more complicated (at Montana), there's more to know."
The move from high school football to college football, Lipski adds, requires a massive commitment of mind and body. During the season, he dedicates about five hours a day to the sport — if he's not practicing, he's hitting the weight room, and if he's not lifting weights, he's watching game film.
Then, of course, there's the homework — hours upon hours of homework.
"It's a balance and you've got to find time for everything," Lipski says.
And on the field, the difference between the star and the scrub is a fraction of what it was at the high school level, making preparation more crucial than ever.
"The biggest difference between (high school and college football) is mentally," Lipski says. "At this level everyone was the star of their high school program. Everyone has the speed or strength and at this level it's all about what you can do mentally. You've got to be prepared and you can't get flustered. You've got to be mentally tough. They expect a lot out of you and pretty much you either sink or swim."
Lipski says he receives support from back home and tries to get updates from his former Ashland teammates — he felt terrible about how a coin flip kept the Ashland football team out of the playoffs and is looking forward to watching the basketball team play over Christmas break. But he doesn't have a lot of spare time these days, so keeping up on the Grizzlies has been difficult.
As for No. 4-ranked Montana's chances tonight at Harrisonburg, Va., Lipski says he and his teammates expect the game to be close. A win would advance the Grizzlies (13-1) to the FCS championship game, where they would face the winner of Saturday's Richmond-Northern Iowa game.
Montana wasn't expected to be a national title contender this year but surprised everyone by clinching the Big Sky Conference championship with a 35-3 win over Montana State on Nov. 22.
The Grizzlies followed up that dominating effort with a 31-13 first-round win over Texas State and Saturday's 24-13 quarterfinal win over Weber State.
Now, the town of Missoula is fired up for what has suddenly turned into a magical season. Lipski is proud to be a part of it. He's even earned a small place in Montana lore by helping a teammate lift up the Big Sky championship trophy after the win over Montana State.
"That was a real special moment for me, being able to carry the trophy," Lipski says. "After the game, everybody was pretty darn excited. I was kind of standing around looking at it. One of the older guys looked at me and asked me for help carrying it around, and I was glad to give it."
"People are getting pretty excited," he adds. "At this point, we've far exceeded our expectations and a lot of people are along for the ride and want to see how far we can take this thing."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or firstname.lastname@example.org