JOLIET — For Joliet football under coach George Warburton and his team, they can never be too prepared.
Each unit of his very, very good J-Hawks squad this year has a role that they’re expected to fulfill at all times. For instance, who Warburton calls his “Marines” — the linemen — are the first on scene and set the tempo. Who Warburton calls his “special forces,” or the special teams, basically had a practice to themselves Wednesday afternoon as Joliet’s next opponent is currently up in the air.
Notice the parallels to the military? That’s intentional by Warburton, whose father served in Iraq and whose program mantra, “Draw A Line,” comes from the story of “Lone Survivor” subject and Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and his actions that led him to safety after being wounded in a gunfight with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Though he made clear not to compare a sport with war, Warburton sees the preparation and competitive elements of each as overlapping a bit. And in installing that methodical, detail-oriented approach to Joliet, the J-Hawks have themselves a contender in the 8-Man title race this season.
“Obviously, playing football, it’s not life or death,” Warburton said. “It’s a game. But boy, I’ll tell you, it’s all about those life lessons. And so if you can learn to play like it’s life or death, you get in those small situations in life (and) it’s going to be no problem.”
No problem, like much of Joliet’s schedule this year — even through a couple of hiccups in its ranks.
The J-Hawks (6-1) are ranked No. 5 in 8-Man in 406mtsports.com’s most recent weekly rankings released Tuesday, having already clinched its first conference championship (in the 8-Man Southeast) since 2018 and secured a berth back to the playoffs for the third straight season.
Joliet has in its victories won by an average margin of 56 points, but the one defeat on its resume — a 28-8 loss at unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Belt on Sept. 30 — was probably the J-Hawks’ most important game of the season thus far from a learning standpoint.
That day in Cascade County, Warburton said, showed his team exactly the type of competition that it’ll be up against if it wants to make a deep playoff run, something that’s evaded the J-Hawks over the past two seasons as they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Fort Benton and first round by St. Ignatius in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
“Belt was so aggressive every play, and that’s something that we need to emulate coming off (of it),” Warburton said. “Small things turn into big things when you’re playing good teams. … We were, two weeks after that, really focusing on that film. And I know we got better because of it.”
It was also a game that came together out of the blue between the schools’ administrations simply because Joliet needed someone competitive to play. The J-Hawks went on a 20-day break between games after its scheduled Week 2 game against Lodge Grass was canceled and Week 3 was JV only for a matchup against Lame Deer.
Therefore, Joliet ended up with a schedule that consisted of three games with one of the teams doing at least a three and-a-half hour drive. The J-Hawks hit the road in two of those matchups (against Scobey in Havre and at Belt) and then welcomed Shelby for an Oct. 8 meeting — a five-hour haul for the Coyotes.
“We used it as a teaching lesson, basically,” senior lineman/kicker Tucker Carpenter said of the long-distance weekends to take on the state’s best. “It was essential, basically, is what I’d say and that it was very useful for us as a team.
“We had a couple of games get canceled, which happens to everybody, but we were just trying to basically pick up games at that point and test ourselves. It was a pretty good thing for us.”
Carpenter, an all-state selection a year ago, is one of six seniors for Joliet as the program, which had struggled for numbers in the past, welcomed some extra depth this time around in the form of 15 freshmen and a JV team that went undefeated this year.
Senior Tyson Cook plays quarterback and has a wealth of weapons at his disposal to turn to, including two more former all-state picks (and classmates) in receiver Paxton McQuillan and tight end Seth Bailey. But the line up front, led by Carpenter, senior Brodee Ward and junior Graidy Ward, has the size and skill to dominate up front and give the J-Hawks a crucial edge at the 8-Man level.
“You’re going to see tough, powerful football up front,” Warburton said when asked what Joliet’s identity is when it plays at its best. “After we’re successful running the ball, you’re going to see us (in) play-action, taking what the defense gives us. But if I could go back and reset this question … I think you’re going to see us winning up front.”
However, no spectators are going to see Joliet win up front for at least another week.
The J-Hawks are in a familiar spot for the season Friday night — opponent-less. But with a spot in the playoffs already secured, Warburton is in the awkward position of keeping his players fresh and focused for a game with an unknown foe. Still, that just leaves more time to work on the little things, and does Warburton ever love that.
During Joliet’s final stanza of its Wednesday practice, a mimicking of a late drive and score, Warburton noticed and called out his players on the sideline that got out of the shoulder-to-shoulder order that he had directed — minute details to some, everything to Warburton. But when the J-Hawks got that “touchdown” to close out practice, the rest of the sideline ran toward the on-field unit screaming in simulated celebration.
Maybe it’s good to practice that last part, too, as one day soon Joliet might be jumping for real, authentic joy.
“We try to keep it pretty tight-knit,” Brodee Ward said. “That’s only going to help us. The kids that are out there cheering us on, it helps a lot. You’ve got to have like a team mentality the whole, whole way. So it really helps.”