By Bill Foley
Butte Central’s boys’ basketball team will be heading to the Class A State tournament for the 15th time in 17 years this week, but this time is different.
For the first time since this century, the Maroons enter the tournament as the defending champions. They share that distinction with Hardin, which is also back in the big dance.
The Maroons open play at 11 a.m. Thursday against Billings Central at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls, but the tournament actually begins on Wednesday when Laurel plays Ronan at 1 p.m. Dillon will battle Hardin at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. (Bracket)
The girls’ Class A State tournament is also being played at the Four Seasons Arena. (Bracket)
All the Butte Central games will be carried live on KOPR 94 (94.1 FM, kopr94.net or on the KOPR app).
While Central shared last year’s title with Hardin after the tournaments were halted by the arrival of the coronavirus in Montana, the Maroons are not heading to the Electric City with the feel of reigning champions.
That is because BC lost nine seniors from last year’s team, and the 2021 squad is almost an entirely different team.
“This was such a new team,” BC coach Brodie Kelly said. “I don’t think having that (designation of defending champion) for us, or Hardin, puts a target on our back.”
Actually, the Maroons are entering the tournament feeling they have nothing to lose.
“If anything, we feel like we’re going in as an underdog,” Kelly said.
The Maroons enter the tournament as the No. 4 seed from the Western A. Billings Central is No. 1 from the Eastern A after edging Laurel 47-46 in the divisional championship game at MetraPark in Billings.
Billings Central, which won the 2019 title, returns eight players from the team Butte Central knocked off in last year’s state tournament opener in Billings. The Rams also bring in a couple of transfer players.
“They’re absolutely loaded,” Kelly said of the Rams. “They have enough talent on this team to field two solid Class A basketball teams.”
Brock Blatter, a 6-foot-6 junior scored 13 points, while Junior Brackenridge, a 6-foot senior, scored 10 in the championship game win for the Rams. Seniro Malachi Stewart (6-1) scored eight, while senior Marcus Wittman (6-1) scored eight, and junior Cayden Merchant (6-4) tossed in 10.
Merchant is a transfer from Billings Skyview, while 6-3 senior Nick Pasquarello transferred from arch rival Laurel.
Billings Central coach Jim Stergar, an Anaconda native, also has a roster that includes 6-9 senior.
“They’ve got 6-9, 6-6, 6-4, 6-3,” Kelly said. “We don’t’ have that. We’re going to have matchup problems all over the place.”
Sophomore Dougie Peoples and reserve senior Isaac Sholey are Butte Central’s tallest players at 6-2.
What the young Maroons do bring to the tournament is a team that showed flashes of brilliance in the divisional to tournament. They also had several players step up at the right time.
That includes sophomore Kyle Holter score all 16 of his points in the second half as the Maroons outscored Ronan 44-20 after the break for a 67-50 win in the tournament opener.
It included senior Egan Lester and junior Drew Badovinac stepping up to have big tournaments. It included senior Bryan “Hugo” Holland driving for big buckets. It included Peoples doing, well, what he has done all year.
Peoples averaged 19.9 points per game during the regular season. He averaged 20.5 points per game in the tournament, bringing his season average to 20.1 points per game.
Only five Maroons have ever averaged 20 points or more during a season. They are Joe Antonietti (23.6 points in 1969), Justin Thatcher (21.6 in 1998), Mike Judd (20.8 in 1966), John Sullivan (20.6 in 1986) and Mike Ferko (20-.4) in 1976. Others to come close are Craig Tippett (19.9 in 2002), Andy Davis (19.6 in 1977), Rob Spear (19.5 in 1976), Tom Kenney (19.4 in 1985) and the legendary “Jumpin’” Joe Kelly (19.1 in 1944).
“That’s a big number to hit. This is the first time I’ve had a guy lead the state in scoring,” Kelly said of Peoples, the slim guard who can score from behind the arc and by taking the ball to the hole. “He finds a variety of ways to score.”
Peoples, Holter, Lester, Holland and junior Bryson Sestrich start for the Maroons. Badovinac comes off the bench along with sophomore Konnor Pochervina.
Badovinac has been a defensive force all season. He turned into an offensive threat as well at the divisional tournament. After scoring 25 points in 15 games in the regular season, a brand-new Badovinac scored 31 in the four games of the tournament.
“Drew played his best basketball on both sides of the court,” Kelly said. “He’s guarding their best player and he’s getting in the lane.”
Sholey and fellow senior John Fisher have contributed off the bench for the Maroons this season. Juniors Joseph Sehulster, George Riojas and Gage Guldseth; and sophomore Rye Doherty have also seen time for BC.
All 13 players will make the trip, though only 12 can suit up at one time.
The winner of the battle of the Centrals will take on Polson (15-2) or Lewistown (12-6) in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. semifinal game.
The other semifinal will be at 5:30 on Friday. Laurel enters at 12-4, and the Locomotives take on Ronan (12-7), which impressively won three straight games to qualify after falling to the Maroons.
Hardin, which was hit hard by graduation after sharing last year’s title, is 7-7. The Bulldogs will face Dillon (17-0), which enters the state tournament unbeaten for the third time under coach Terry Thomas.
The Beavers completed the perfect season with the state tile in 2007 and 2012.
The Maroons had to win a play-in game last Monday to qualify for the divisional tournament. Including that victory and the four tournament games, BC is 9-3 over its last 12 games.
Two of those wins came in loser-out situations. So, the Maroons are battle tested, if not a favorite to bring home the title.
Going in a bit under the radar is just fine with Kelly, who has taken his teams to the semifinals 10 times and to the title game three times since taking over the Maroons before the 2004-05 season.
“We’re clearly underdogs,” Kelly said, “and that isn’t a bad way to go into the tournament.”