Expansion champion 

Seven-year-old Bridger Smith wears his Missoula Raptors baseball hat, tucks a football under one arm and waves a game-day program and pen with the other, politely asking members of the team for autographs. He’s one of about 50 children scattered across the Washington-Grizzly field following the Raptors’ nail-biting 24-23 victory over Helena to clinch the Montana Division championship in the semi-professional Rocky Mountain Football League.

Asked if he had fun watching the win, Smith nods his head hard.

“They’re my favorite team,” he says.

The Raptors took only one season on their journey from expansion to champion. In their inaugural effort, they finished with a 6-2 record and went undefeated against in-state competition. The win over Helena means the team is seeded fifth in the RMFL playoffs, and will host a first-round game Saturday against the Magic Valley Bulldawgs (from Rupert, Idaho) at Loyola Rams Stadium (kickoff at 3 p.m.). From success on the field to admiration off of it, the season’s been a resounding success.

“This is such a great opportunity for the community,” says team founder and safety Paul Ryan. “We all live here. We’re not being recruited from across the country to represent the city. We work here, we have family here and we play here. And now, we’ve started a winning tradition here.”

The Raptors knew winning was necessary to generate momentum for an operation that initially struggled to get off the ground, and relied on sponsor and community support to keep the season going. Ryan says the Helena victory isn’t only sweet satisfaction for the players, but administratively important: the team can collect ticket sales from another home game rather than have to scrounge the $5,000 bus fare to another team’s stadium.

“This goes way beyond my wildest dreams,” Ryan says. “I never expected the team to go from zero to a title, and honestly, this is just the beginning. We’re still growing. We have plans for even better things next year.”

Then Ryan excuses himself to autograph the back of another child’s Raptors t-shirt.

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