By Bill Foley
Butte High’s boys will enter the 2020-21 basketball season with a major assist from the 2019-20 Bulldogs.
Last March, the Bulldogs used an inspired performance at the Western AA Divisional tournament in Missoula to qualify for the Class AA State tournament for the first time in seven years.
Butte High did not win a game at the tournament in Bozeman, but second-year Bulldog head coach Matt Luedtke said the carryover affect through the summer, fall and first three weeks of practice has been obvious.
“Last year, I don’t think the kids thought we could beat a few teams,” Luedtke said. “Making the state tournament, gaining confidence and improving over the summer, I think we can compete with and beat anybody in the state.”
The Bulldogs will get their first chance to showcase that newfound confidence Saturday when they head to Missoula for a 2 p.m. game against Big Sky. Butte High’s first home game will Jan. 7 against Helena Capital. (Schedule; Roster)
Home games will likely be held at the Butte Civic Center, though no school announcement has been made. Two spectators will be allowed per player, home and away.
Butte High was hit hard by graduation, losing five seniors from last year. The Bulldogs, however, bring back eight players with varsity experience.
To begin the season, the Bulldogs will likely start five seniors — Blake Drakos, Zach Merrifield, Cael Stenson, Billy “The Kid” Kelly and Jake Olson.
Olson, a future University of Montana tight end who is listed at 6-foot-8, averaged a team-best 11.7 points and 6.2 rebounds last season. He has been a varsity contributor since his freshman season, appearing in 58 career varsity games. That includes all 24 games last year as the Bulldogs went 8-16 overall.
Luedtke said Stenson could be the X factor for the Bulldogs. The coach said the 6-4 Stenson has improved greatly after a promising junior campaign.
“Cael is probably one of the most improved players in the state,” Luedtke said. “Stenson is a phenomenal defender. He’s big time, zone or man. People are going to be shocked with what he’s doing this year.”
Kelly and Stenson are coming off shoulder surgeries that kept them off the football field this fall. Kelly injured his shoulder in the divisional tournament. That injury came just after Kelly returned to the team after missing time with a fractured ankle.
Luedtke is happy to get back the point guard who averaged 5.8 assists per game a year ago. He will be charged with distributing the ball to Butte High’s deep group of weapons.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people. We have some kids who can really shoot it,” Luedtke said. “We’ve got guys who can put the ball in the hole. We have a really good mix.”
Merrifield missed all but a few minutes of last season after suffering a gruesome broken leg the previous summer.
“Blake Drakos looks really good,” Luedtke said. “Zach Merrifield is still coming off his broken leg, but he shows flashes of brilliance.”
Drakos, Butte High’s starting quarterback this fall, brings a ton of starting experience to the Bulldogs.
In all, Butte High’s program includes 35 boys. Of those, 15 are practicing with the varsity/junior varsity group.
Juniors Kenley Leary and Mikey O’Dell were key contributors last year. So was sophomore Eric Loos. At 6-5, Kooper Klobucar gives the Bulldogs some depth inside. Others on the varsity/JV roster are junior Holt Downey and sophomores Kale McDonald, Jonas Sherman, Casey Merrifield, Cameron Gurnsey and Jace Stenson.
“I think we’ve really good thing going,” Luedtke said. “I’m pretty excited. We had an awesome summer. We had a lot of boys come in committed to getting better. That’s really shown at practice.”
Luedtke said he expects to play a lot of guys, and he said his starting lineup could easily change.
“Those guys are all potential guys who can start,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to hurt anybody’s feelings coming off the bench. Everybody is competitive and wants to be a starter, but everybody understands we’re going to start a certain way. They playing time will be pretty equal.”
Luedtke came to town before last season with a pair of Class B State titles as head coach at Choteau. He prided himself as a man-to-man defensive coach.
That all changed late in the season, and the Bulldogs rode a stellar 2-3 zone defense to state. The coach said he expects to keep up with that zone most of the time this season. He said he will likely run zone 85 percent of the time.
“I’d love to play man, but we’re so good in that zone,” he said. “They’re doing things in the zone already that we were trying to get done last year. It just suits our personnel a little bit better.”
The Class AA will play a a 14-game season made up only of conference games. That wipes out four non-conference games for the Bulldogs, who were lined up to play Belgrade, Gallatin, Dillon and Butte Central.
Luedtke was hoping to get those games in so his team would be ready for the conference season. Instead, they have had to rely on four weeks of practice.
“I was thinking those would be some pretty good games to get us back in the swing of things and get us ready to play conference games,” Luedtke said. “We had our scrimmage last week, and kids were nervous for the scrimmage.”
Butte High was set to host the Western AA Divisional tournament this season at the Civic Center. That likely will not happen because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A playoff system will most likely replace the tournament format. However, that has not been set just yet. In the meantime, Luedtke and the Bulldogs are just focused on finally getting to play a game. Any game.
“I’m excited to get going,” Luedtke said. “I’m looking forward to Saturday.”