For 16 years, I have waited to write a story about Brodie Kelly’s Butte Central Maroons winning a state championship.
I always thought it would happen. Never did I think it would be like this.
When I talked with Kelly moments after his Maroons were finally saddled with that long-awaited title Friday night, it was like I had just run over his dog.
The next morning, Kelly did not feel much better.
“It’s still so hard to know how to feel,” Kelly said. “I feel terrible for the boys. They don’t get to experience championship night. They so deserve it.”
The Butte Central Maroons are the Class A state champions of the 2019-20 season. So, too, are the Hardin Bulldogs.
Neither team felt particularly like winners after the coronavirus pandemic forced the Montana High School Association to cancel the final day of all the state tournaments late Friday night.
Saturday’s championship games were called off, and the semifinal winners in the boys’ and girls’ tournaments of all Montana classes were declared co-champions.
The Maroons and Bulldogs rightfully felt like they were sucker punched. Both teams felt like they lost, though nothing could be further from the truth.
The 23-0 Bulldogs know they would have won the championship game had it been played Saturday Night at The Metra in Billings. The 20-4 Maroons feel just as confident that they would have hoisted the trophy.
Unless the teams get together on their own and duke it out in an empty arena like Rocky and Apollo at the end of Rocky III, we will never know.
Hardin fought off Butte Central 79-73 in the state semifinals a year ago in Great Falls.
The Bulldogs, who won the title two years ago and fell to Billings Central in the title game last year, ran through this season with ease.
Butte Central started 12-0 and before struggling through and up-and-down spell over the final six weeks of the season. When the Maroons were right, like they were Friday, they looked like they could beat anybody.
The Bulldogs looked like they could not be beaten as they dismantled Livingston in the semifinals.
The Maroons battled back from a nine-point deficit to beat defending champion Billings Central in Thursday’s opening round.
Then, BC spotted Western A champion Browning an eight-point lead before battling back with one of the most impressive wins in school history.
Not since R.J. Olson fed Ryan Maloney for a fast-break dunk to finish off Stevensville in the 1992 state championship game did the Maroons look as good as they did Friday night.
That does not mean they would have beaten the Bulldogs, who boast the legendary Famous Lefthand. But undefeated teams have lost in the championship game before.
The 1989 Butte High Bulldogs were the best team I have ever seen play, but Gary Kane and the boys fell to Kalispell Flathead in a 53-50 title game shocker.
You can also ask the 1992 Whitefish Bulldogs about what being undefeated this time of year. Butte Central, whose roster included a junior named Brodie Kelly, ruined their perfect season in the semifinals the night before beating the Yellowjackets in the title game.
By the way, the 1989 Butte High and 1992 Whitefish undefeated teams both went down at The Metra.
Upsets and perceived upsets happen all the time. That, as they say, is why you play the game.
While we can speculate all we want, it is not fair to presume one team is more deserving than the other. Both teams were deemed “co-champs” by the MHSA, and both should be respected as such.
The same goes for Billings Skyview and undefeated Missoula Hellgate in the Class AA boys’ tournament. It goes for all the tournaments.
A headline on 406mtsports.com, though, seems to suggest that the Maroons are not on par with the Bulldogs, calling Hardin “No. 1” and BC “No. 2.”
That is a reference to the site’s power poll.
First off, nobody should recognize a power poll that is selected by one media organization.
A real poll, like the Treasure State Media Poll conducted by Anthony Nachreiner from KGEZ Radio in Kalispell during the football season, includes media members from all across the state.
Second, the only reason the numbers were used in that situation was to make it look like just one team was cheated. Rankings mean nothing this time of year.
Like the other boys’ and girls’ teams that were declared co-champions in the Class AA through Class A, Butte Central’s boys deserve the title.
Accordingly, sometime around 2045, these Maroons will rightfully be inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame.
Aside from developing a vaccine to COVID-19, the Maroons did everything they could to win a state championship. They controlled everything they could control.
The Maroons and the rest of the teams that had to share championships did nothing wrong to earn the asterisks some people want to slap on them. They did not steal signs, and they did not flunk any steroid tests.
While all those teams will probably be battling an empty feeling of what might have been for years to come, none of them owe anybody an apology or an explanation for their shared titles.
They should hang banners and take firetruck rides to celebrate because no state championship should be taken for granted. For most schools and towns, they do not come around very often.
Since Mickey Tuttle climbed up and sat on the rim to celebrate the Butte High boys’ title on St. Patrick’s Day in 1984, only the 1992 Butte Central boys and the 2011 and 2016 BC girls brought state basketball titles home to the Mining City before the Central bus rolled back into town on Saturday.
The Maroons won the Central A Divisional title and advanced to the state championship game in 2005, Kelly’s first year as head coach of the Maroons. But a desperation, running 3-point attempt at the buzzer by Matt Pokorny bounced off the rim, and Columbia Falls beat the Maroons 52-50 in the Butte Civic Center.
I told Kelly, whom I have known since my first day of seventh grade, that someday soon I would be writing about his team winning it all.
Kelly’s Maroons were back in the title game three years later, facing Browning in The Metra.
D.J. Fish, a 6-foot-5 senior for Browning, was 1 for 17 shooting 3-pointers in the regular season that year.
In the championship game, he sank four 3-pointers — and hit another long shot with his foot on the 3-point line — as Browning ended Central’s championship dreams.
Central’s boys did not win a state semifinal game again until Friday night.
Winning a state title on any level takes a great deal of talent and a greater deal of good fortune, so sharing the crown is not the end of the world.
As the Maroons drove home Saturday, they apparently started to come around to that realization.
Braden Harrington, one of nine seniors on the team, played “We Are The Champions” by Queen on his stereo.
Harrington and his teammates sang along, but they changed up the lyrics just a little bit.
“We are the champions,” the Maroons sang, “and so are the other guys.”
That made Kelly smile.
After that, he no longer felt like I had just run over his dog.
— Bill Foley, a Butte High graduate who has never run over anybody’s dog, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. 3 comments