By Bill Foley
Don’t count Kenley Leary among the surprised at Thursday night’s performance by the Butte High boys’ basketball team.
The Bulldog junior guard seemed to know that the Bulldogs would play a good game against Missoula Big Sky at the Richardson Gym. It did not matter that the Bulldogs were down three starters because of a coronavirus quarantine.
“I kind of expected us to come out and have a fire under us,” Leary said after the Bulldogs picked up a 71-49 Western AA win over Missoula Big Sky at the Richardson Gym.
It wasn’t that the Bulldogs won that opened eyes. It was how they won.
They Bulldogs displayed an edge of fearlessness and had a whole lot of fun as they went nearly wire to wire for the victory to even their record at 3-3.
Leary was one of four Bulldogs to reach double figures in the win. He scored nine of his game-high 16 points in the third quarter.
Zach Merrifield hit four 3-pointers and scored all of his 14 points in the first half. Mikey O’Dell added 13 points, and Jake Olson poured in 12. Kooper “Jackie Moon” Klobucar started for the first time and scored nine points.
Merrifield got the Bulldogs rolling with a pair of 3-poitners to put the Bulldogs up for good at 6-4.
After the Bulldogs led 15-6 going into the second quarter, Merrifield capped a 12-5 Bulldog run with back-to-back treys. Butte High coach Matt Luedtke pointed out that those two long balls came after Merrifield fired an ugly airball.
“He got us going,” Luedtke said. “We were laughing in the locker room about how he makes two threes, airballs one and makes two more.”
“It was really big having Zach hit those shots,” Leary said. “He got our offense rolling.”
The Bulldogs never stopped rolling. They led 32-15 at halftime and 57-35 after three quarters. They rolled while getting contributions from up and down the lineup.
Sophomore Cameron Gurnsey scored three points, while classmates Jace Stenson and Jonas Sherman each scored two. Sophomores Kale McDonald and Casey Merrifield also played for the Bulldogs.
“I hope they’re watching,” Luedtke said of his players who have to stay home until Tuesday. “I hope they learn something from these boys because that was extremely fun to watch, fun to coach. I’m so proud of these boys.”
Big Sky fell to 2-5, but Luedtke played up the ability of Thursday’s opponent.
Junior Caden Bateman and Kade Olson each scored 13 points to lead the Eagles, who saw eight different players score points.
“Big Sky is a good basketball team. They’ve been playing each other tough this year,” Luedtke said before praising his Bulldogs. “They just rose to the occasion. Every single one of the kids that was out there, I thought, gave their best effort. They played loose, it was fun, and we got some monster performances from a lot of kids out there.”
None of those performance was bigger than the one from Merrifield in Luedtke’s eyes. Merrifield suffered a gruesome broken leg in June of 2019. The injury made forced him to miss his entire junior season. It still causes problems for the Bulldog senior.
“It’s amazing that he was out here playing,” said Luedtke, who fought back tears as he talked about Merrifield. “Two years ago, I was there when he broke his leg in half. That was tough to see. Just to have him out here is amazing.”
The 14 points was a varsity career high for Merrifield.
“What a gutty performance by him,” Luedtke said “Every day that he’s out there is a blessing. Him and Jake, senior leadership. They set the tone for us, the two captains we have left. They wanted it.”
Luedtke also pointed to the play of Klobucar, who brought Bulldog fans to their feet with a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
“Koop, he was awesome,” Luedtke said. “He was so wild and obnoxious yesterday at practice. Today, when he got to the gym, he was stone cold. He was not talking. He was very focused.”
The coach said to expect to see more of 6-foot-5 Klobucar playing alongside the 6-8 Olson as the season goes on.
“Sometimes us coaches are not smart,” Luedtke said. “It takes some adversity for us to realize maybe the style we should be playing. I don’t know that there’s too many kids who can, one on one, guard Jake Olson or Kooper Klobucar. It was really fun having those guys in the game at the same time to see how they did. I thought they rose to the occasion.”
The Bulldogs will be back in action Saturday when they head to Missoula to take on 6-0 Missoula Sentinel. They will again be without starters Billy Kelly, Cael Stenson and Blake Drakos, a trio that averages a combined 26.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game.
Leary said the new-look Bulldogs will take the same approach they took in beating up on Missoula Big Sky.
“I expect nothing less,” Leary said. “I think we will come out and play the same way we did tonight, fearless, shooting the ball and having fun.”
MISSOULA BIG SKY (2-5) — Tre Reed 2 1-2 6, Caden Bateman 4 4-5 13, Louis Sanders 1 0-0 3, Chaz LaDue 2 4-7 8, Kade Olson 4 4-6 13, Mitch Muralt 1 0-0 2, Shane Shepard 0 0-0 0, Evan Towe 0 0-0 0, Eamon Higgins 0 2-2 2, Jake Gardanier 0 2-2 2, Kolbe Jensen 0 0-0 0. Totals 14 17-24 49.
BUTTE HIGH (3-3) — Zach Merrifield 4 2-5 14, Kenley Leary 5 4-6 16, Mikey O’Dell 3 5-5 13, Kooper Klobucar 4 0-0 9, Jake Olson 5 2-4 12, Cameron Gurnsey 1 1-3 3, Jace Stenson 0 2-2 2, Jonas Sherman 1 0-0 2, Kale McDonald 0 0-0 0, Casey Merrifield 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 16-24 71.
Big Sky 6 9 20 14 — 49
Butte High 15 17 25 14 — 71
3-point goals — Big Sky 4 (Reed, Bateman, Sanders, Olson), Butte 9 (Z. Merrifield 4, Leary 2, O’Dell 2, Klobucar). Fouls — Big Sky 18, Butte 20. Fouled out — J. Olson. Technicals — none.