Bulldog senior will close hoops career at State tourney
By Bill Foley
Shortly after he saw it happen, Matt Luedtke passed out.
Closing in on two years later, the Butte High boys’ basketball coach still chokes up when he tries to talk about it.
Zach Merrifield broke his leg so grotesquely at a summer basketball tournament in Choteau that his coach thought for sure his playing days were done just weeks after he completed his sophomore year in high school.
“I’ve never seen an injury like that in person,” Luedtke said. “All I could think about was ‘He’s never going to play again.’”
No matter what happens this week at the Class AA State basketball tournament in Great Falls, the fact that Merrifield will be in the starting lineup for the Bulldogs when they open the tournament against Billings Skyview at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Four Seasons Arena is a major victory for anyone with a heart.
Merrifield’s lower right leg basically broke in half as he came down from a layup in late June of 2019. He was playing in a tournament run by Luedtke, who resigned as the head coach at Choteau High School to take the job at Butte High a little more than a month earlier.
“I was going up for a layup, and this guy was running alongside me,” Merrifield said. “I didn’t land on him or anything. I just went up for a layup, I landed and it …
“I didn’t think of it at the time,” Merrifield continued. “I kind of just fell over. I tried to give up and leg gave out. I looked down, and I saw it was sideways. I could see the bottom of my foot. The gym cleared out.”
Merrifield said the injury was not as bad as the one suffered by then-Washington quarterback Alex Smith suffered in November 2018. It was probably closer to the injuries famously suffered by Joe Theismann and Dak Prescott.
“My bone didn’t go out of my skin,” Merrifield said, referring to Smith. “So, I was lucky there.”
Luedtke immediately called 911, knowing his player had to rely on volunteer EMTs in the small town almost an hour away from Great Falls, on the high northwest to Browning. Then the coach sought out to find something to stabilize the leg.
“The first guys who showed up started sawing my shoe off instead of cutting it off,” Merrifield said. “We all started freaking out at him, so he took out some scissors and cut it off.”
Eventually, Merrifield was loaded into the ambulance. The adrenaline that got Luedtke through the initial moments had worn off.
“Once they got him and put him in the ambulance, I kind of started to calm down,” the coach said. “I was outside and I sat down on a bench outside. All I could think about it is that he’ll never play again.”
Then the coach passed out.
Luedtke woke up on his back, staring at the sky. Then he passed out again.
Merrifield’s father, Chuck, did not pass out, but he also struggled with the injury. He was on his way to Choteau when the injury happened.
Zach said his mother, Katie, was there and stayed strong.
“She was pretty good,” Zach said. “My dad was freaking out when he got there, which is understandable.”
The ambulance took Zach to the hospital for an x-ray. Then he was taken by ambulance the nearly hour drive to Great Falls. There, he stayed overnight before undergoing surgery early the next morning.
That night was not easy. Zach was put on a medicine drip, where he could push the button for more pain medicine. Every time the medicine wore off, he would wake up.
“I set my phone for every 7 minutes and 50 seconds,” Chuck said. “Every time it went off, I’d hit the button for him. That’s what I did the whole night.”
The next day was not much easier.
“The surgery was supposed to be 45 minutes to an hour,” Chuck Merrifield said. “It took three hours. They had to use a pry bar to get that bone over.”
Three screws and a rod were inserted, and Zach Merrifield began the long, slow road to recovery. Doctors said stress fractures in his leg helped set up the freak injury.
“I lost like 25 pounds, and I was only about 140 to begin with,” he said. “It was bad for a while. I couldn’t move off the couch for like a month.
“My leg is still not the same as the other. It’s still smaller.”
Eventually, Merrifield was able to walk again, and he spent countless hours in physical therapy trying to prove those initial Luedtke fears wrong.
When the basketball season began the next December, Merrifield could only watch his friends play for the Bulldogs.
“I missed it last year,” he said. “It was hard sitting out.”
Merrifield, who got into three varsity games as a sophomore, made it back to the court in time to play in some junior varsity games late in the 2019-20 season. He suited up for the Western AA Divisional tournament in Missoula, and then played a couple of minutes near the end of Butte High’s lopsided loss to Missoula Sentinel in the third-place game.
Merrifield got off two three points in that game, making one.
He did not get to play in Butte High’s two games at the Class AA State tournament in Bozeman, but he got to watch from the bench. He was a part of the team.
While he was back on the court, Merrifield was not even close to back to normal.
“He was playing at 40 percent if you had guess,” said Chuck, a former Butte High basketball assistant who is now the school’s activities director. “He was in a ton of pain.”
Between the end of basketball and the time before the track season was officially wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, Merrifield worked on running.
He was fresh off a promising sophomore track season when he broke his leg. Zach was part of Butte High’s 400-meter relay team at the State meet in Kalispell. He set a personal record of 11.38 in the 100-meter dash at the Harry “Swede” Dahlberg Invitational, qualifying him for the Russ Pilcher Western Montana Top 10 meet that April.
“During track season I started hitting my stride. I started getting more athletic,” Zach said. “I was like seventh going into the Top 10 meet for the 100 on the West.
“Basketball is fun, but I was the best at track. I like to spend time with my Papa Charlie. Whenever I was healthy, I would go down and run with him at the track. I like running. It feels good when you’re healthy.”
On the turf at Naranche Stadium last spring, Merrifield was not even close to healthy, and his times showed it.
“He was running about a 26-second 100-yard dash,” Chuck said. “That is all he could do.”
“I would just run and run and it wouldn’t get any better,” Zach said.
Since he is a Merrifield, track is Zach’s favorite sport. His grandparents, Betty and Charlie Merrifield, are track royalty in the Mining City. The track at East Middle School is named after Charlie, who saw his children and grandchildren compete there.
Betty has run almost every track meet that has been put on in Butte over 50 plus years.
Zach’s aunt Liza (Merrifield) Dennehy was one of if not the best female athlete to ever compete at Butte High. His cousin Keli Denney ran track for the University of Montana, and his cousin Jake Dennehy will forever be known for his field goal to win the Class AA state championship football game.
Chuck competed in track and cross country for Butte High before playing football at Montana Western, after he hit a growth spurt.
Zach also has athletes on the other side of his family. His mother, the former Katie Davey, lettered in three sports while competing in Columbus in the mid-1990s.
So, sports, particularly track, are in Zach’s blood, and he is looking forward to his senior track season, and he has even been talking to some colleges about running track.
“I’m just seeing how this year goes and how I feel,” said Zach, who carries a high 3.8 GPA. “(Montaa) Tech is having the track program next year, and their coach talked to me. I’ve got options.”
The 2021 basketball season got off to a scary start for Merrifield.
Not long before Butte High’s first game, which was Jan. 7 at home against Helena Capital, Merrifield landed on the foot of a teammate at practice and sprained his left ankle.
At the time, he thought he rebroke the leg, even though it was actually the other leg that he hurt this time. He said he figures post-traumatic stress kicked in.
“I freaked out because I heard a pop. That’s what happened when I broke my leg,” he said. “I didn’t know. I was freaking out. I was like ‘Oh my God, I hurt it again.’ But it was my other leg.”
The injury forced Merrifield to miss the first two games. He made his season debut Jan. 14 in Butte High’s loss at Kalispell Glacier. He has played in every game since, including last Thursday’s home playoff win over Kalispell Flathead.
In 13 games, Merrifield hit 13 3-point shots.
His best game came when the Bulldogs, minus three starters in quarantine, scored 14 points to help the Bulldogs beat Missoula Big Sky Jan. 28 at the Richardson Gym.
At one point in that game, Merrifield launched an ugly air ball. He bounced back with back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Bulldogs break the game open. He hit four treys in the game.
Luedtke figures that air ball could be an example of Merrifield still worrying about the leg.
“There are times I think he misses threes because he’s afraid somebody is going to run under him, and rightly so,” the coach said.
Luedtke, too, worries about Merrifield — and other players on both teams — when players come down with their feet close to each other. Each case makes him cringe a little bit.
“You just hate to see injuries,” Luedtke said.
Part of that is knowing how important basketball was to Luedtke’s life. He played high school basketball at Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The sport took him to the University of Montana, Montana Western and to the American Basketball Association.
After leading Choteau to back-to-back Class B state titles and 54 wins in a row, the sport led Luedtke to the Mining City.
Luedtke knows none of that would have probably never happened had he suffered a similar injury at the same age.
Merrifield acknowledges that mentally he is not back to where he needs to be.
“It seemed like it messed with my mental state,” he said of the injury. “When Kenley (Leary) went in for a layup against Flathead, I felt the guy to my right. I kind of went in for a jump, and I kind of just peeled off. I was like, ‘Why did I do that?’ I felt nervous so I just kind of peeled off.
“It just feels like I’m going in and if there’s somebody under me I kind of panic.”
Part of that is because Merrifield is still playing in pain, though it is not as bad as it was early in the season.
‘I worked hard for it’
Merrifield’s recovery has been set back by several factors. One is that the break brought on compartment syndrome in his right leg.
Compartment syndrome is a condition that occurs when pressure with the muscles builds to dangerous levels. It is a condition that affected a couple of Butte High athletes in recent years.
That is what caused senior running back Josh Neil to have emergency surgery to end his season in 2018. Sydney Pendergast, a 2017 graduate, almost lost her cross country and track career because of the same condition.
“Early in the year, it still hurt really bad,” Merrifield said. “It felt like it was expanding almost. It felt like it was burning all the time. So, I went to the doctor and they gave me orthotics. That helped out a lit.”
The 6-foot Merrifield, who built himself back up to 145 pounds, worked hard to try to avoid surgery for the condition, and he is still not out of the woods. He traveled around the state multiple times a week for special physical therapy.
“I went everywhere. I went to Belgrade, Bozeman, Missoula, Butte,” Merrifield said. “The last guy in Butte that I saw noticed that my right leg is about three quarters of an inch shorter than my left leg. So, I got a heal raise in my left foot, which made it better.”
Merrifield starts for the Bulldogs, but he only plays for a few minutes at a time. That seems to work out good for Merrifield, who is a force on the outside of Butte High’s zone defense, a strong passer and an occasionally hot shooter.
“He’s probably at the point where he can go 4 minutes at a time,” the coach said.
“It feels like I can’t get up to top speed right now on the basketball court, just with all my cutting and stuff,” Merrifield said. “So, I’m probably 90 percent, 95 percent.”
Luedtke said he prefers to use Merrifield in “short bursts” so he does not overdo it.
“I think against Sentinel he played about 19 minutes. Right at 16 I think is good,” Luedtke said, referring to Butte High’s huge 73-64 Feb. 26 upset of previously-unbeaten Missoula Sentinel. “You’d be pretty hard pressed to change my mind about it. I’d hate to use him too much and see him hurt again.”
That’s because the coach saw firsthand how much Merrifield went through to get back on the court.
“I love him,” Luedtke said. “He’s just a tough kid, man.”
That included getting up every day to work hard in the weight room. It included fighting through pain that would make most people quit.
“You’ve got to hand it to the little dude,” Chuck Merrifield said. “It was amazing what he did
Just seeing him out there and doing what he’s doing is kind of amazing. He is having so much fun out there playing with his friends.”
Zach Merrifield is just happy that his prep basketball career will end on the floor of the Four Seasons Arena at the State tournament and not on that court in Choteau.
“That’s what everybody has been dreaming of since they were kids, all the five seniors,” Merrifield said. “I worked hard for it.”