Bulldog boys ‘healthy’ as they pursue lofty goals

Bulldog boys ‘healthy’ as they pursue lofty goals
Butte High guard Kash Kelly controls the ball as Great Falls High’s Hunter McKinney defends during a March 1 Eastern AA Divisional Tournament game at the Richardson Gym. (Bill Foley photo)

By Bill Foley

Just like that, your Bulldogs have grown up.

For the first time in several years, Butte High’s boys’ basketball program has “healthy” numbers at every level, and fourth-year head coach Luke Powers feels his team is ready to compete at the highest level.

“It’s time,” Powers said after a Wednesday practice at the Richardson Gym. “This is the fourth year. I think it’s the crossroads for our program. We have more experience than we ever have, and we have more depth than we’ve ever had.”

The Bulldogs will put that experience and depth on display when they open the season Tuesday at Helena High. Butte High’s next three games are at home, starting with a Dec. 11 game against Missoula Big Sky at the Civic Center. (Schedule; roster)

While Butte High is coming off a 3-17 season, they have a lot of reason to believe this is the season in which the Bulldogs will snap a State tournament drought that dates back to 2013.

“Our expectations are high,” Powers said. “We have six seniors that have worked hard. This is the first group that I’ve had that I have been able to see all the way through. The program is healthy, that’s important. Freshman through senior, the program is healthy right now.

“If our goal isn’t go compete at the state tournament, then we’re not setting our goals where they need to be. We’ve got to improve all season and go make State.”

Making that quest more important — and perhaps making it more pressure packed — is the fact that the Class A State tournament is March 7-9 at the Civic Center.

The Bulldogs will have to get through the Eastern AA Divisional tournament in Great Falls to get back home for the big dance.

“The Eastern conference is going to be just as tough as it ever is,” Powers said, before adding that he believes his team can beat any team in the state. “There is not a game on our schedule that we’re not capable of winning, and I haven’t been able to say that the three years I’ve been here. I’m not saying we’re going to go undefeated by any means, but I’m saying when I look at a game, we’re capable of winning every one.”

Powers is confident in his team because he has talent up and down his roster.

“We think we can play nine right now. We haven’t had that flexibility before,” Powers said. “When Andrew Booth gets health we think we can play 10.”

Booth is a 6-foot junior who has yet to be cleared after suffering a gruesome broken leg during the baseball season.

Which players will start is still up in the air, and Powers said that will be for some time.

“Of those 10, there’s no starters set,” the coach said. “I’d imagine the first four games we’re going to have four different starting lineups. We’re just going to find chemistry as games go on.”

Powers said the difficult job of determining the starters is a good problem to have.

“It’s a blessing in disguise, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Last year we played six. The year before that we could play seven. Now, all of a sudden we have all this experience.”

Seniors Kash Kelly, Clay Ferguson, Kale McCarthy, Trevyn Roth, Danny McCloskey and Jake Vetter lead the Bulldogs into action.

Kelly, a varsity player since he was a freshman, has played in 58 games through three seasons with the Bulldogs.

Ferguson led the Bulldogs with 14.7 points per game last season, emerging as one of the top players in the state on his way to second-team all-conference honors.

“Clay Ferguson is 6-3 and super athletic and long,” Powers said of Ferguson, who scored 20 or more points four times last season. “He can jump out of the gym.”

Roth sank 52 3-pointers last year. McCarthy was a key contributor, and McCloskey steps up to the varsity level after playing half the season on the junior varsity team.

McCloskey spent the first half of the season playing varsity for Butte Central. He scored 19 points as the Maroons beat the Bulldogs 57-39 last Jan. 11, so the Bulldogs are well aware of his high ceiling.

“He’s a special player. He’s a special scorer. He’s a good kid, too. He fits in,” Powers said. “He had the opportunity to come here and partially learn our system as a JV player and then grew with us over the summer.”

Junior Tommy Mellott is another important returning piece for the Bulldogs, who got 96 percent of their points from six players — Kelly, Ferguson, Roth, McCarthy, Mellott and graduated senior Lathan Ricketts — last season, which ended with an 0-2 performance at the Eastern AA Divisional tournament in their own gym.

Powers pointed out that Mellott, the quarterback of the Butte High football team, is bigger this season.

“Tommy Mellott probably added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, pluss he grew an inch,” Powers said. “He can jump out of the gym.”

If it seems like jumping is a theme for Powers, it’s because it is. The durability of the backboards at the Richardson Gym and Civic Center could be in for a test this season.

“This is the first year that we have kids who consistently are up dunking the basketball,” Powers said. “Basketball is not all about being able to dunk, but it is nice to have kids athletic enough to get up there because it helps with rebounding.

“Having those athletic kids is going to help us,” the coach said. “One of our biggest weakness last year was boarding the ball. Nine times out of 10 the team that wins the rebounding ball is going to win the game.”

Jacob Olson, a 6-6 sophomore, could be in for a big season for the Bulldogs.

“He’s all of 6-6, and he’s athletic,” Powers said of Olson, whose father, Bob, played for the Bulldogs before contributing to a conference title at the University of Montana. “He’s way above the rim.”

Ryan Burt, a 6-5 junior, gives the Bulldogs even more size.

“He’s a big, strong kid who is athletic,” Powers said. “He’s above the rim, dunking the ball.”

Juniors Michael Phillips and Zach Olsen and sophomores Billy Kelly, Zach Merrifield, Ryan Neil, Cael Stenson and Aidan Lee round out the Bulldog varsity/junior varsity roster.

The Bulldogs went 17-46 over the past three seasons. That includes last year’s 3-17 campaign.

Ricketts was the lone senior last year. The rest of the team has grown up, and is highly motivated by the losses from a year ago.

“Three-win basketball seasons are not fun,” Powers said. “They’re hard on players. They’re hard on coaches. It makes the season a grind. It’s a challenge mentally for the kids to stay in it and stay positive and keep learning and improving.

“We got through that together, and all of a sudden we’re ready to go.”

Powers is assisted by Scott Ferguson, Dale Burgman, Steve Shahan and Shane Sutton.

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