By Bruce Sayler
Butte High’s Bulldogs might be thought to be the new kids on the block, but an expected large following from The Mining City is expected to make them feel right at home in Bozeman.
Butte High will be in the boys’ portion of the state Class AA high school basketball tournament being held Thursday through Saturday in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. The trip marks the Bulldogs’ first to the state AA boys’ tourney since 2013. (Bracket)
They are entering as a fourth seed and with an 8-14 record, making them regarded in state circles as long shots to gain any trophy. First-year head coach Matt Luedtke and the players see the observation as a challenge.
Butte High’s first game is scheduled for Thursday at 1:30 p.m. against Eastern AA Divisional champion Billings Skyview (15-6). (Radio: KBOW, 550 AM, 101.5 FM, online)
“I think we match up well with Skyview,” Luedtke said. “They sit in a 2-3 zone and we sit in a 2-3 zone. I think we might be a little bigger than them. I like the way we match up a lot.”
The AA boys are to tip off at noon with Helena Capital (16-5) playing Great Falls High (14-7). Butte High and Skyview follow before Billings West (18-2) plays Missoula Sentinel (17-5) at 6:30 and favorite Missoula Hellgate (21-0) takes on defending champion Bozeman (12-10) in a rematch of last year’s state championship game.
The Bulldogs will be trying to keep track of 6-foot-7 senior standout Julius Mims of Skyview in the Thursday clash. Mims cleared 6-foot-9 to win the AA state high jump title last June and is averaging 12.4 points and 9.0 rebounds a game for the Falcons, coached by veteran mentor Kevin Morales. The team’s leading scorer is 6-2 junior Cameron Ketchem, 13.6 points a game, as calculated by statskeeper Lowell Peterson, while 5-10 junior Abe Seybert runs the point. Ketchem leads the state in 3-point shooting with a .537 success rate. Mims is second in shot blocks, averaging 1.83 per contest.
“Mims is super athletic,” Luedtke said. “He will be a tough matchup for us. The boys know we need to get a body on him. He can get up and get the rebounds, and the dunks.”
Butte High gets 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds a game from 6-8 junior Jake Olson, setting up what should be a good dual between he and Mims in the paint. The Bulldogs’ No. 2 scorer is 6-0 junior Billy Kelly at 11.4 points a game. However, a midseason broken ankle and a late season shoulder injury have hampered Kelly’s recent efforts.
“Billy practices (Tuesday),” Luedtke said. “He’s wanting to give it a shot, at playing in the state tournament. It’s the Bulldogs’ first time since 2013 and he wants a shot to go. He worked so hard to get back from the broken ankle and then he popped his shoulder. He’ll get some minutes at the state tournament.”
Blake Drakos, a 6-2 junior, averages 8.2 points and 6-4 junior Cael Stenson pulls down 6.4 rebounds a game. Butte High’s floor leader is 6-0 senior Tommy Mellott, second in the state in assists with 4.44 a game. Mellott has been a varsity player for four years, including three as an every-game starter. Andrew Booth, a 6-1 senior, rounds out the starting lineup.
The Bulldogs placed fourth in the recently completed Western AA Divisional tournament held in Missoula, and played four games in three days doing it. Luedtke said the team played two games in two days only twice all season, so the pace at divisionals was a bit wearing.
“Practices have been going good this week,” he said, adding Monday’s a light one to give the players more recovery time. “(Tuesday), we practiced a lot on offense, getting shots up.”
The bench has come together for the Bulldogs well, especially in the last month with contributions from a number of team members. Their tournament roster will also include 5-9 sophomore Cole Stewart, 6-0 junior Zach Merrifield, 5-9 sophomore Kenley Leary, 6-0 senior Dillon Ferry, 6-2 sophomore Mikey O’Dell, 6-6 senior Ryan Burt, 6-3 freshman Eric Loos and 6-5 senior Kaven “The Dragon” Noctor, in addition to the starters.
“It was awesome to see the kids come together,” Luedtke said. “Every guy stepped onto the floor and did something great for us. “
Such depth could be a weapon put in play early. Luedtke said scores from the Eastern Division were lower and indicated that deliberate offenses were probably used more. The game will be the first meeting of the Bulldogs and Falcons this season.
“I think they can do it all,” he said about the Falcons’ approach. “We have to make sure we can get back on defense and not give them anything easy.”
The winner of the game will face the winner of the Capital-Great Falls contest in Friday’s 6:30 semifinal. The losers of the Butte-Skyview and Capital-Great Falls tilts will play an elimination game at noon on Friday.
The Bulldogs have been playing their best ball of the season recently and came out of the divisional feeling confident, even after losing to a really good Sentinel team in the consolation final.
“Our spirits are up,” Luedtke said. “Even last week, before the divisional tournament, we were talking about how the team’s morale was so high. At the state tournament, we have a chance. The boys understand we have to play our best basketball.”
“The boys have kept a great attitude and kept fighting. They did what you expect a bunch of Butte kids to do. We’re looking to come out aggressive against Skyview.”
A good-sized following from Butte is expected to be cheering for them. It was the talk of the stands at divisionals.
“Butte is such an awesome community for supporting its kids,” Luedtke said.
The girls will open the AA tourney with C.M. Russell (12-9) playing Missoula Hellgate (19-3) at 9 a.m., and Helena Capital (20-1) going against Billings Skyview (10-11) at 11. Missoula Sentinel (17-5) will take on Bozeman (9-13) at 3:30, followed by Billings West (17-3) against Kalispell Glacier (11-11) at 5. (Bracket)
Three-time defending champion Helena High was eliminated from contention at the Western AA Divisional.