Maroons open State A against Billings Central

Maroons open State A against Billings Central

By Bill Foley

The Butte Central Maroons will not be venturing into any unknown territory Thursday when they open the Class A State boys’ basketball tournament at The Metra in Billings. (Bracket)

Neither will Central’s first-round opponent.

The Maroons open the tournament at 3 p.m. Thursday against defending state champion Billings Central. (Radio: KOPR, 94.1 FM, online)

Butte Central is making its 14th trip to the Class A State tournament in 16 years under head coach Brodie Kelly. The Maroons, though, are about a whole lot more than making state.

BC is there to compete for a championship.

In their previous 13 appearances at state, the Maroons have advanced to the semifinals nine times. They played in the state championship game twice, falling to Columbia Falls in 2005 and to Browning in 2008.

Butte Central has two third-place finishes, including last year, and one fourth-place showing.

“It’s been tough,” Kelly said of not bringing home a state title from any of those tournaments. “I’d love to get over that hump one day.”

The coach, though, agreed that Central’s run has been an impressive one.

“That is never something to take for granted,” Kelly said. “Getting to state is hard, getting to the semifinals is even harder. We’ve done a great job giving ourselves a chance to win.”

If the Maroons are looking for an example of a team that finally got over the proverbial hump, they need to look no farther than their first-round opponent.

The Rams, who are coached by Anaconda native Jim Stergar, fell in the championship game in three straight seasons from 2016 through 2018.

One year after falling 47-43 to Hardin in the 2018 title tilt in Great Falls, the Rams won a rematch on the same court, beating the great Famous Lefthand and the Bulldogs 62-44.

“He does a really good job,” Kelly said of Stergar. “They’re definitely prepared and organized, and they run a lot of good action.”

The opener will mark the fifth meeting between the Rams and Maroons in Kelly’s run at Butte Central. Remarkably, though, they haven’t faced off since the Rams beat the Maroons in a loser-out contest on Saturday morning of the 2015 state tournament in Bozeman.

Both teams have been at state together the last four years, too. Both teams are appearing at state for the sixth straight season.

Billings Central, which faced the Maroons several times in Butte’s tipoff tournament years, is 3-1 in the previous four games at the state tournament.

The defending champion Rams (13-8), who were hit hard by graduation after hoisting the trophy last March, enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed from the Eastern A. They fell 69-56 to Hardin in the championship game of the Eastern A Divisional tournament Feb. 29 at The Metra.

Senior Gabriel Pehna Dos Santos and sophomore Marcus Wittman are the only Rams who averaged in double figures scoring in the regular season that saw the Rams go 11-7 overall and 3-3 in Southeastern A play.

Wittman averaged 11. 6 points per game in the regular season, while Dos Santos scored 11.1. Charlie Parkan, a 6-foot-4 senior, added 8.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, while junior Malachi Stewart averages 7.9 points and 4.6 rebounds.

Three of Billings Central’s loses came at the hands of 21-0 Hardin.

The Maroons (18-4) enter the tournament after placing third in the Western A Divisional two weeks ago in Ronan.

Central is stacked with height, athletic ability and experience. The Maroons boast nine seniors, and many of those players have contribute for three and even four years.

The Maroons, however, struggled down the stretch. After starting the season at 12-0, Central went 3-3 over its last six games of the regular season. BC squeaked out a one-point victory over Hamilton to qualify for state after falling to Frenchtown in the semifinals.

Kelly is hoping that those rough times only made the Maroons stronger.

“I like our team. I think we’ve got the right tools this year,” Kelly said. “The journey as you go through every season matters. This year, having faced some adversity down the stretch has forced us to make some tweaks and adjustments. I’m hopeful that will have us ready.”

Senior Braden Harrington leads the Maroons in scoring with 13.6 points per game. His 48 points and the divisional tournament — which included two free throws to lift BC past Hamilton — brought him to exactly 300 points on the season.

Fellow senior Trevor Neumann averages 8.4 points for BC. He sank six 3-pointers (on six attempts) in a win at Three Forks before hitting five treys in a win at Anaconda.

Senior guard Luke Heaphy scores 6.9 points per game, while the Simkins brothers — Matt and Jared — follow at 6.7 and 6.5.

Seniors Gator Yelenich and Aaron Richards are regular contributors for the Maroons, while seniors Ryan Wahl and Thomas McGree have also made their mark on the team during the season.

Juniors Bryan Holland and Egan Lester, and freshman Kyle Holter, who made his first varsity appearance at divisionals, will round out the BC roster.

Junior Isaac Sholey, who appeared in three games on the season, will be an alternate along with sophomores Bryson Sestrich and Drew Badovinac and freshman Dougie Peoples.

The Centrals are on the same half of the bracket — the bottom half — with Browning and Laurel, who play at 5 p.m.

The Indians roll into the tournament at 17-4 after winning the Western A title. Laurel (12-10) is the No. 4 seed in the Eastern A after finishing at 1-5 in the Southeastern A, which sent all four teams to state.

Frenchtown, which fell to Browning in the chipper, enters at 17-4 as well. The Broncs battle Livingston (13-6), which won 10 of its last 11 games behind star Brendon Johnson, at 9 a.m. Johnson averaged 26.7 points per game in the regular season.

Hardin, led by Lefthand’s 23.8 points per game, takes on Polson (13-9) at 10:30.

Of the eight teams that made the tournament, out of the 21 Class A teams, only Polson didn’t appear at state last year.

Kelly said the field is a loaded one.

“I feel that way every year at the state tournament,” he said. “Hardin is amazing, but every team is capable.”

For the second year, the girls’ tournament will run in conjunction with the boys’ tournament. (Bracket)

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