Panther Players

Belgrade seniors Riley Burman, from left, George Batey, Brylee Cage, Nate Jenkin, coach Blake Dooley, Zayne Konkol, Dyson Cheney, and John Mears pose for a photo Dec. 18 at Bar 3 BBQ in Belgrade. They are raising money to represent Montana and compete in a game in Italy in March.

Seven Belgrade football players are raising money to compete in an international game in Italy in March.

Seniors George Batey, Riley Burman, Brylee Cage, Dyson Cheney, Nate Jenkin, John Mears and Zayne Konkol will represent the United States in a game against the Italian National U19 Team.

The players will practice each morning for a week prior to the contest and then experience the country with stops at popular tourist destinations such as St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, and the Colosseum in Rome.

“It’s just as much about history and education as it is about football,” Belgrade assistant football coach Blake Dooley said. “Each day we’ll have a pre-planned itinerary of what our tour will be and we will have a fulltime tour guide with us while we’re in country every day.”

The trip will also feature stops in Tuscany, Siena and Florence as well as at Cinque Terra, Lake Como and Milan.

“In America we think 200 years is old. But you get into these European countries and it’s 1,000 years old. And you can still touch it, feel it, see it and experience it,” said Dooley. “In America it’s hard to find anything thing that’s 200 years old and it’s still there, so it’s quite an experience in history and culture that these boys and families will never forget.”

Dooley will represent the USA team as an assistant coach. His eldest son, who resides in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, participated a year ago.

The program is in its eighth year with national teams from France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Spain participating. This year, Dooely noted, Ireland doesn’t have enough numbers to field a team, but Italy and Spain are hosting games.

The USA team will be represented by 26 states. In addition to Belgrade’s players, DeMarcus Carr and Jaden Blenvenue of Billings West will also represent Montana.

“It’s a wide range of kids from across the U.S.,” noted Dooley. “And it’s really impressive how none of these kids have played together before and we get them for a very short period of time, and they mesh really well.”

With the help of Belgrade head coach Eric Kinnaman, Dooely reached out to coaches from all of the Class AA teams and invited players to participate. He hopes to expand that to all classes beginning next year.

“We didn’t get the response that we were hoping for,” said Dooley. “It’s the first push in Montana for this. People haven’t heard of it — is the best way to put it — hopefully this first go-round really gets it out. It’s a worth-while experience for kids and the communities and states, and hopefully the next three years we can secure a lot more kids from around the state of Montana to get this experience.”

The trip will span 10 days beginning March 20. Montana’s players will fly into Chicago on the 20th, as well as the entire coaching staff, and receive their plays books, equipment, and meet other players. There are also meeting sites in New York and Los Angeles for the remainder of the team, and then they’ll all meet up in Italy on the 21st.

Jim Barnes, who founded American Football Worldwide and has led the effort for teams to travel overseas, will serve as the team’s head coach. He coached at the NCAA Division III level for 25 years — 16 as a head coach.

“Coach Barnes has put together and outstanding program. He also does collegiate teams,” said Dooley. “My son plays in Iowa and actually hooked back up with coach Barnes during the season last year, and his college team was asked to go to Germany.”

The players need to raise roughly $3,800 each, according to Dooley, to fund the trip. That would pay for all costs, including air fare and everything the players would do in country.

Two fund raisers have already been held, including one at Bar 3 BBQ in Belgrade on Dec. 18. Another fund raiser is scheduled for Buffalo Wild Wings in Bozeman in February, while a bingo night is scheduled for the American Legion in Manhattan.

The players will also bag groceries at the Albertson’s in Belgrade sometime in the near future for tips.

The athletes’ parents, particularly their mothers, have led the fund raising charge.

“None of us coaches could do anything without the moms. They do so much for the programs, whether it be football, wrestling, basketball, and volleyball,” said Dooley. “Huge support cast and they’re doing a remarkable job right now leading the fund raising charge for these boys.”

The players’ families have been invited to attend the trip too, and Dooley noted the camaraderie both parents and athletes make with each other.

“We really like the idea of family and parents going along. It’s such a unique opportunity,” he said. “It’s kind of a neat experience for the kids as well as the families. You make lifelong friends and put yourself out there. These are kids from all across the U.S.”