By Bill Foley
A deadly pandemic will forever overshadow the sporting world in the year 2020. With more than 300,000 Americans killed so far, it will overshadow everything.
The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the final day of the Montana state high school basketball tournaments in Missoula, Bozeman, Billings and Butte. It canceled the entire spring season, meaning the entire calendar will serve as a reminder of what was lost.
Still, many great individual and team performances highlighted Butte sports in 2020. Nobody will soon forget how the Butte High’s boys’ basketball team unleashed “The Dragon” in Kaven Noctor to make a run to the Class AA State tournament.
Butte High’s girls’ team went down fighting valiantly at the Western AA Divisional tournament in Missoula.
Also on the hardwood, Montana Tech’s men’s basketball team picked up its first Frontier Conference winning record in 21 years. The Orediggers, though, fell at home to MSU-Northern in the first round of the Frontier Conference playoffs.
Bulldog Catherine Russo, who is now an Ohio State Buckeye, ran her individual state title total to eight — the most possible — with two more wins at the state swimming meet. She then saw her Olympic dreams delayed when the Summer Olympics and United States trials were pushed back a year to 2021, at least.
The Butte Miners and Muckers got a late start to the American Legion Baseball season, and Butte’s boys of summer proved to be worth the wait. Both teams posted their best records in recent history. The “Do Better” Miners fell short of an expected state tournament appearance, but the team finished with a 28-16 overall record. That includes a 24-8 record against conference opponents.
Of course, the Miners and Muckers were not the only baseball teams to make news this year in Butte. The Mining City Tommyknockers came to town as an expansion team of the Expedition League in 2020. The wooden bat summer league for college players will take the field at 3 Legends Stadium in May.
High school sports returned in a limited and often-interrupted fashion in the fall. The season saw Butte High’s football team battled past an 0-3 start with four straight wins to qualify for the playoffs. Butte Central was hit hard by coronavirus-related quarantines, and the Maroons closed their season with an Election Day “De Facto Bowl Game” against Glendive in Lockwood.
While the Orediggers made their cross country debut this fall, the Montana Tech men’s golf team stole the show, delivering the school its first-ever Frontier Conference regular-season title.
Butte High’s girls’ golf team fell just short of its third straight third-place finish at the state tournament, and the Bulldog boys saw outstanding sophomore Jack Prigge miss out on what was sure to be an All-State run at the state tournament because a classmate tested positive for the virus.
On the slopes, Butte’s Brad Wilson closed the year strong, and he is looking forward to World Cup podium finishes in 2021, when and if the season resumes.
The sports story of the year in Butte, though, is Brodie Kelly’s Butte Central Maroons.
The BC boys captured their first Class A State basketball title in 28 years, although that title took a while to set in with the members of the team.
That is because the Maroons never got the chance to play in the championship game. While eating a late dinner shortly after beating Browning 66-50 in the semifinals of the Class A State tournament at The Metra in Billings, the Maroons learned that the rest of the tournament was canceled.
Central would be declared co-champions along with undefeated Hardin. Instead of taking on the Bulldogs in a packed Metra on Saturday night, the title tilt will forever be known as “The Greatest Game Never Played.”
At least it will be known that way in the Mining City.
While Hardin and its fans were sure the Bulldogs would have won, Butte Central and their fans knew the Maroons were playing their best basketball since that 1992 team, which included a junior named Brodie Kelly, hoisted the title in Billings.
The Maroons came from behind to beat Billings Central before putting an exclamation point on their season with a convincing win over Browning, long an arch rival of the Maroons in the postseason.
Just like with a Ryan Maloney dunk from an R.J. Olson pass in 1992, Jared Simkins’ one-handed dunk in traffic put a bow on BC’s 2020 title. As his teammates and fans went berserk, Simkins simply sprinted down court to play defense, which is what he always did best.
“I was just as surprised as everyone else,” Simkins said of the dunk after the game.
Central finished the season at 20-4, giving the school its 14th 20-win season since it began playing basketball in 1915. The state title was BC’s sixth. The Maroons also won the crown in 1950, 1956, 1978 and 1984.
The team took the long road to the state tournament by placing third at the Western A Divisional tournament in Ronan. Braden Harrington sank two free throws with 10.8 seconds left before Matt Simkins forced a turnover in BC’s 41-40 loser-out win over Hamilton.
That white-knuckled victory sent BC to the third-place game and onto the state tournament.
The state champions boasted nine seniors. They were Luke Heaphy, Harrington, Trevor Neumann, Gator Yelenich, Ryan Wahl, Aaron Richards, Thomas McGree and the Simkins twins. Other members of the state tournament team were juniors Bryan Holland and Egan Lester and freshman Kyle Holter. Junior Isaac Sholey, sophomores Bryson Sestrich and Drew Badovinac and freshman Dougie Peoples were alternates who sat on the bench at state.
Assistant coaches were Renzy Kelly, Collin Hollow, Tanner Neumann, Alex Murphy and Keegan McCarthy, all former Maroons
The title was the first as coach for Kelly, who has taken the Maroons to state in 14 of his 16 seasons as head coach. After a two-month delay, the Maroons took their traditional state championship fire truck ride through town on May 15, giving the Mining City a chance to salute its champions.
The year 2020 will go down as one of the worst years of all time. It was sad and boring.
But our sports teams gave us some reason to smile along the way. None had their fans grinning more than the state champion Butte Central Maroons.