As the Western AA Divisional boys’ and girls’ tournaments began Thursday in Missoula, Chuck Merrifield walked around the old gymnasium at Missoula Sentinel like he was running for office.
The Butte High activities director smiled ear to ear as he circled the old gym, shaking hands, slapping backs and, presumably, kissing babies.
Coronavirus be damned.
Merrifield could not have known it at the time, but he was about to unleash “The Dragon” on the Class AA.
“The Dragon” is Kaven Noctor, the unlikely hero who helped Butte High’s boys advance to the Class AA State tournament for the first time in seven years.
Noctor, whose middle name of Rudy never seemed more fitting, had gone almost two full seasons without wearing a Bulldog uniform.
The former district champion in the Elks Hoop Shoot and future Montana Tech golfer decided early on that he was not going out for the team in his junior season.
Yet, after skipping out on summer ball and open gyms to play golf, Noctor decided to try out at the last minute. And, he got cut.
While Noctor is tall, he is not even remotely fast. There is no way any coach is going to put Noctor in a game to play man-to-man defense.
Since he was very young, though, Noctor had a sweet stroke. He rarely misses a free throw, and he can routinely knock down 3-pointers from NBA range.
As a senior, Noctor decided to give the Bulldogs one more shot. Butte High had a new head coach in Matt Luedtke, and Noctor figured he would get a fresh start.
When it came time to try out, however, Noctor was injured.
Unable to play, Noctor still went to practice with the Bulldogs. He was part of the team, but he sat on the sideline for the first month of the season.
When he was healthy enough to play, Luedtke gave Noctor three days at practice to make the team. He impressed the coaches enough to keep him as a practice player, but Noctor and the coach never figured he would get any real playing time.
He did not even have his name on the roster.
As Noctor continued to practice with the Bulldogs, assistant coach Chad Jonart started calling him “The Dragon.” Nobody knows exactly why, but the name stuck.
The beauty of the nickname is in its ridiculousness.
His teammates and coaches — Luedtke in particular — love the nickname. Noctor just smirks.
Luedtke calls Noctor “The Dragon” so much that you would think the coach forgot his real name.
Noctor finally got a uniform late in the season. When Luedtke thought the team needed a spark during the “dog days,” Noctor put it on.
That came at about the same time Luedtke switched from man to man to a zone defense, and that is much better suited for not-so-fast players like “The Dragon.”
Appearing in four games down the stretch, Noctor finished the regular season with 14 total points. Of those, 12 came on 3-pointers.
Over four games of the divisional tournament in Missoula, Noctor almost doubled that output, hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 27 total points.
Noctor had the old gym at Missoula Hellgate going absolutely bonkers on Saturday morning as he scored 11 points, grabbed some rebounds and dished out some beautiful passes to help lead Butte High past Glacier and onto to the Class AA State tournament for the first time since 2013.
That came less than 24 hours after Noctor hit two 3-pointers to help the Bulldogs keep their season alive with the win over Flathead.
And to think, all of this almost never happened.
As the divisional tournaments began, Merrifield was happy because this is his baby. You could see that as his face lit up every time he saw another activities director approach.
From the early 1990s through 2017, the Class AA used a boring playoff system that brought the season down to one game.
All the while, the teams in the other classifications were guaranteed at least one tournament. Teams in the Class B and C have to get past district and divisional tournaments to get to the state tournament.
That means the best teams get three tournaments in a season.
That is three weekends of excitement that will give the student-athletes a lifetime of memories. Even the worst teams get one weekend of tournament fun.
Butte High once went 14 years without a basketball tournament of any kind.
Those tournaments are what high school and college basketball are all about. Tournaments are what bring the madness to March.
Tournaments give us Cinderella stories, one shining moment and unlikely heroes like “The Dragon.”
A basketball season without a tournament is no basketball season at all, and Merrifield recognized that.
He was not afraid to pester his colleagues about it, either. Merrifield made a motion to bring back divisional tournaments year after year.
Even though he would get voted down like Mondale in ’84, Merrifield would bring it up again the next year. And then the next.
He simply would not take “no” for an answer.
Merrifield often gets beat up by parents and fans who are not happy with how things are run at Butte High. They might not like the coach that he hired — or the coach that he will not fire.
He was ripped apart for hiring Arie Grey before the 2008 football season, but given no credit at all when Grey’s Bulldogs won the 2012 state title.
Merrifield, however, should forever be given the benefit of the doubt because of the years he spent working to right a serious wrong.
Eventually, Merrifield wore down the rest of the state. Three years ago, the other ADs gave in, and Merrifield was able to proudly announce that the Class AA would be returning to divisional tournaments.
We had two exciting Class AA divisional tournaments over the weekend, and everybody loved them.
“If we didn’t have Chuck, we wouldn’t have divisionals,” Helena Capital boys’ coach Guy Almquist said not long before leading the Bruins into the semifinals.
Almquist is grateful for that, too. He knows that divisional tournaments are at least 10 million times better than the old playoff system.
The old system would have sent both Bulldogs teams, which finished sixth in the regular season, to Missoula Sentinel for a one-game playoff with the No. 3 Spartans.
The games would have probably been played on a Tuesday night, and madness hardly ever happens on a Tuesday night.
Under the playoff system, we never would have seen the Butte High girls come together as a team and make an inspired run at state.
We never would have seen the Bulldog boys’ and girls’ teams keep their seasons alive with exciting wins over Flathead Friday afternoon.
More importantly, Butte High’s boys would most likely be looking at an eight-year state tournament drought, and the Bulldogs never would have unleashed “The Dragon.”
As the tournaments began, Chuck Merrifield was right to be smiling.
— Bill Foley, who knows what it is like to be cut form a high school basketball team, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.