By Bill Foley
Butte Central’s boys’ basketball team jumps right into the fire Friday and Saturday when the Maroons open the season at the Northwest vs. Southwest Class A Basketball Tip-off Tournament in Missoula.
That’s not exactly a cupcake opener, but it is exactly the way the Maroons want to open the season. BC head coach Brodie Kelly, who is entering his 15th year in charge of the Maroon boys, wants no part of easy non-conference games.
“I’d rather play good teams and find out what you’ve got to fix early in the year,” Kelly said. “Those years we had the Tipoff Tournament here we always played Laurel, Billings Central and Browning. We had the choice of who we wanted to play, and we wanted to play the best teams we could.”
Kelly is hoping the Maroons’ tough opener helps prepare the team to compete with the best teams in a brutally tough Class A.
Junior star Famous Left Hand is back after leading Hardin to its first state title in 21 years as a sophomore. The 6-foot-3 Left Hand averaged 17.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during the title campaign.
Defending Southwestern champion Hamilton returns All-State seniors Hunter Omlid and Tanner Goligoski.
Also, Billings Central, last year’s runner up, returns senior Chrishon Dixon, Lewistown brings back senior 6-5 Jaden Graham, Dillon brings back 6-4 senior Michael Haverfield, Frenchtown returns Zach and Cade Baker, and Browning added former Heart Butte star Riley Spoonhunter to a lineup that already included Tyree Whitcomb.
That’s just to name a few.
“There’s a lot of really good teams in Class A,” Kelly said.
Butte Central is also bringing back some serious talent as the Maroons look to book their 13th trip to the Class A State tournament in 15 seasons. Central lost one senior from last season — Tyge Yelenich — and all but a few minutes of last season because of a knee injury.
The Maroons return nine players who played varsity during last year’s 16-10 season that ended in the Class A State tournament in Bozeman.
Cade Holter, a 6-foot senior, is the elder statesman of the Maroons. He’s been playing varsity for BC since his freshman season.
Holter is one of three seniors on the team — Dylan Sestrich and Patrick Dolan are the others. The 6-3 Sestrich missed his sophomore season with an injury. He broke out for the Maroons in a big way during the postseason.
Dolan, who is currently battling an injury, is looking to see the floor in a varsity game for the first time.
Juniors Luke Heaphy, Aaron Richards and Matt and Jared Simkins have all played varsity since they were freshmen. Classmates Gator Yelenich, Braden Harrington and Trevor Neumann saw time on the varsity squad a year ago.
Junior Thomas McGree is expected to contribute this year, as is junior Ryan Wahl. Sophomores Brian Holland and Egan Lester round out BC’s varsity roster.
Heaphy is coming off a first-team all-conference season that saw the guard average 10.3 points per game. Holter was a second-team all-conference player with 7.3 points per game, while Matt Simkins took home an honorable mention following a season in which he averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Richards, listed at 6-4 along with the Simkins twins, contributed with 7.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season.
So, Kelly heads into the new season with some options.
“I think our starting lineup is going to vary every game,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a number of guys who are capable.”
“It’s been a good couple of weeks of practice,” the coach added. “What’s been noticeable this year is how fast we’ve advanced things because of all the experience we had.”
The first part of the season will be set finding the rotation of starters and reserves.
“A normal year for us is about eight,” Kelly said of the number of players he uses. “We’ve had some years with seven and some years with nine. We don’t have an exact number yet. We’re going to evaluate and see where we’re at. There’s a lot of guys that have the potential to play varsity.”
All this experience and athleticism has the Maroons thinking big. BC, though, is not getting too far ahead of itself.
“I think our guys are setting the bar pretty high for themselves,” Kelly said. “But they also realize how competitive Class A is.”
First, the Maroons have to get to full strength, which likely won’t happen until January.
Matt Simkins is walking around in a walking boot after suffering an injury during the football season. Simkins was also limited at the end of last season with a different foot injury.
Jared Simkins missed the beginning of last year with a football injury.
“It’s rare that we’ve had both of them available,” Kelly said, hoping he will a bunch eventually this season.
Central has also had a hard time fielding a full squad for practice because of other injuries and illnesses.
“A full practice is 15 kids,” Kelly said. “We’ve had one.”
The Maroons open Southwestern A play Dec. 14-15 with a trip to Frenchtown and Stevensville. BC’s first home game is Dec. 18 against Belgrade.
Central will host the Southwestern A District tournament Feb. 14-16 at the Maroon Activities Center. The divisional tournament is Feb. 21-23 in Hamilton, and the first combined Class A State tournament is March 7-9 in Great Falls.