Outside the back door of the Belgrade Special Events Center Saturday night, a member of the Columbia Falls girls’ basketball team sat on the ground crying her eyes out.
This player and her Wildkat teammates just put up a valiant effort against the Butte Central Maroons before falling 55-48 in the championship game.
The win gave Butte Central its second Class A State title in six seasons. It also marked the first perfect season (24-0) in school history. For the girls’ basketball team, anyway.
As her friends tried to console the inconsolable player after the last high school game of her career, she fought back with a reminder that she missed free throws that could have given her team a better shot at handing the Maroons their first loss of the season.
Through her tears, she forgot the countless plays she made to keep her team in the game in the first place. Hopefully, some day she remembers because there should be no shame when giving it your best isn’t quite good enough.
What this player was experiencing was a feeling as old as time. It’s called the agony of defeat, and it could be something that will stick with her, at least a little bit, for the rest of her life.
Through her tears, the Columbia Falls player showed how much that state championship means. It means everything.
Inside the building, the Maroons were still in uniform, shedding different kinds of tears as they posed for photographs and hugged their family and friends.
There wasn’t one member of the champion Maroons that wouldn’t have sympathy for the heartbroken Wildkats. A little more than a year ago in Hamilton, the Maroons were feeling the same way following a title game loss.
In a way, the Maroons also owe a debt of gratitude to the Wildkats. To be a great champion, you have to beat a great foe, and the Maroons and Wildkats both lived up to that billing Saturday night, and then some.
Columbia Falls went blow for blow with the Mighty Maroons, keeping the fans on the edge of their seats, for the game didn’t have a dull moment.
A worthy opponent makes victory sweeter and a champion more memorable.
The Maroons would have still forever savored the title had they rolled to a 30-point win Saturday night. But the trophy probably wouldn’t have ever looked so nice if the championship game wasn’t very much in doubt for 31 of the game’s 32 minutes.
The Wildkats brought out the best in the Maroons as both teams played their best in the biggest game of the season.
Columbia Falls forced the Maroons to showcase their unflappable composure and their incredible unselfishness. They made the Maroons put their greatness on full display.
And, these Maroons are truly great, one of the best ever. They have an abundance of talent and even more character.
Without question, three Maroons, maybe four, could have averaged more than 20 points per game during the season. Instead, the Maroons took turns leading the team in scoring night after night.
Sophomore Kloie Thatcher is as smooth as they come. University of Montana coach Robin Selvic should be beating down her door.
Junior Emily St. John, who could be a college volleyball or basketball player, can drive to the hoop like no girl I have seen before.
And classmate Mollie Peoples, well, she is Mollie Peoples. What more can you say? It was obvious she was destined to be a state champion since the day she took her first steps.
The other two starters, senior Sierra Pica and Kailee Murphy, had their own moments of greatness, too, especially down the stretch.
On Saturday, Pica closed out her career with the game of her life. She scored 19 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five shots. Most of that came after she likely broke her nose, and that injury couldn’t force her to leave the court.
Off the bench, senior Kate Ossello accepted the role as defensive specialist like she was born to play it. The same could be said for junior Taylor Wahl and sophomore Megan Michelotti.
Tricia Joyce, a 5-foot freshman who can hit a golf ball farther than 90 percent of the men in town, was a spark-plug off the bench all season. Junior Caleigh Mullaney and sophomore Olivia Bolton also saw time during the title hunt.
Then, of course, freshman Bella Sorini gave us the best Mining City sports moment of year when she scored the last point of BC’s win over Butte High less than a week after losing her father to cancer.
Leading them all was the Great Meg Murphy. Yes, she has officially earned the title “Great.”
Murphy’s coaching career at Butte Central began with a losing streak of more than 40 games.
Thankfully she didn’t let that early failure let her down. Luckily for BC, Montana Tech didn’t realize the great coach it had on its hands when the school fired her after a short stint as head coach a little more than a decade ago.
Now, Murphy’s name belongs right there with the likes of Butte coaching legends like Swede Dahlberg and Jim Street.
Saturday was Murphy’s fifth title as the head coach of the Maroons. She won three in softball and two in basketball.
She also was part of state basketball and track team titles as a player for BC. That gives Murphy seven championships as a Maroon, putting her in a class all by herself.
This year’s 24-0 record isn’t even Murphy’s best at BC. Her 1999 and 2000 softball teams both went 26-0, as Murphy won her last 52 games as a softball coach.
Following the 2000 title, Murphy took the Tech job and had to leave the softball job.
Eventually, the coach returned to the Maroons — first as an assistant and then as a head coach — and she revealed her true greatness.
This year she showed more than ever that no coach in the state can make a better halftime adjustment than Meg, who will be the first to point out the outstanding assistants that are Melissa Swanson, Katie English, Quinn Peoples and Lexie Murphy.
Quinn and Lexie were members of the 2011 state championship Maroons, who won the state title on the same court in Belgrade.
Saturday night they were coaching as their younger sisters did the same.
Remarkably, four 2016 Butte Central champions are the younger sisters of members of the 2011 team. Annie Ossello and Alicia Pica also got to watch their siblings live that same championship dream on Saturday.
Yes, the undefeated 2015-16 Butte Central Maroons were a great bunch. We knew that before the state tournament even began.
Thanks to the Columbia Falls Wildkats, we now know the Maroons are even better than we thought.