By Bill Foley
This game is a longtime coming for the Maroons.
By the time the ball flies in the air for tipoff of Butte Central’s boys’ basketball game against Dillon Saturday at the Maroon Activities Center, 303 days will have ticked off since the Maroons last took the court.
It sometimes feels like yesterday but also feels like a million years ago since the Maroons beat Browning in the semifinals of the Class A State tournament in Billings. Later that night, of course, the rest of the tournament was called off because the coronavirus reached Montana.
Butte Central and Hardin, the other semifinal winner, were declared co-champions.
“It feels like forever,” said BC coach Brodie Kelly, who is entering his 17th season coaching the Maroons. “It’s almost to the point where it’s going to feel surreal to play a game. Honestly, is that day ever going to come?”
Of course, the cast of characters taking the floor for the Maroons will be much different. BC lost nine seniors form the team that delivered the school its first boys’ basketball state title since 1992.
Only seniors Bryan Holland and Egan Lester and sophomore Kyle Holter were on Central’s state tournament roster. Holland contributed in both games at state. Holter and Lester played in the semifinal win.
Senior Isaac Sholey, juniors Bryson Sestrich and Drew Badovinac and sophomore Dougie Peoples were alternates in Billings.
“This year, we’re starting over,” Kelly said. “This is a whole new crew. It’s a whole new group of guys.”
That group, by the way, is coming off a quarantine because of a positive case of the coronavirus. For the last 10 days, the Maroons practiced with three players from the varsity roster and seven players from the frosh.
All but Lester came off quarantine on Thursday. That gives the Maroons one practice with most of the team before taking on the rival Beavers. Central’s game at Livingston on Thursday was postponed.
“I encouraged them all to stay in shape,” Kelly said. “That was their No. 1 priority the last 10 days, was to stay in shape.”
The Maroons enter the season with a roster deep in talent and shooters. Kelly said he is comfortable with any of his players taking 3-point shots at any time.
The Maroons will start Holland, Holter, Sestrich, Peoples and Badovinac. Lester might crack the starting lineup when he is able to join the team.
Junior Joseph Sehulster will also be part of the rotation that Kelly figures will be primarily made up of seven players.
Sholey is expected to compete for playing time on a varsity roster that includes senior John Fisher, juniors George Riojas and Gage Guldseth, and sophomore Konnor Pochervina.
“There’s so many variables,” Kelly said. “We don’t know if we’re going to be in shape, we don’t know how we’re going to be.”
Kelly said he is not overly concerned about the lack of practice over the last 10 days. He said the team got in good work early on after practice opened on Dec. 7.
“We had a couple of really good weeks to start the season,” Kelly said. “Over that time we got a chance to get a good rotation.”
The fact that the Maroons will be playing the always-tough Beavers right out of the gate does not add anxiety for Kelly.
“That’s alright, we’re ready to play,” the coach said. “We’ve got a huge test. We’ll find out where we’re at against Dillon.”
The Beavers come to town with a 2-0 record that feels more like 4-0. Dillon has convincing wins over Livingston and Stevensville under its belt. The Beavers beat Livingston 88-31 and Stevensville 81-32.
Kelly said he likes facing a tough opponent in the opener.
“I actually prefer to play the best teams right out the chutes,” he said.
When the Maroons used to host a tipoff tournament, Kelly always made sure his teams opened with contenders like Billings Central and Browning. It was following along with Kelly’s philosophy that every game is vitally important.
That system has worked well for Kelly, who has taken the Maroons to the Class A State tournament in 14 of his previous 16 seasons with the Maroons.
Last year, the Maroons went 20-4, giving the school its 14th 20-win season since it began playing basketball in 1915. Three of those 20-win seasons came in the Kelly years, including a 22-win season in 2018-19, when the Maroons placed third at state.
In all, Kelly has posted a record of 272-132 in his 16 seasons. Only Butte High legend Swede Dahlberg, who went 407-289-1 in 29 seasons, has won more high school boys’ basketball games in the Mining City.
For the first time on Saturday, Kelly will enter the season as the coach of the defending state champions.
Kelly will once again be assisted by his brother Renzy and former players Alex Murphy and Colin Hollow. Former Maroon Cade Holter, who is working as a student assistant with the Montana Tech men’s basketball team, will also help the Maroons.
Central plans to hoist a championship banner in the MAC. Kelly, though, said that will not happen until the players from the 2019-20 team will be allowed to attend.
Only two spectators per player — home and away — are allowed into BC games because of COVID-19 restrictions.