These Diggers have come a long way from ‘Year Zero’

These Diggers have come a long way from ‘Year Zero’

Montana Tech men’s basketball coach Adam Hiatt had a hard time saying it with a straight face, but he was 100 percent serious.

Hiatt was tasked with rebuilding the Oredigger program, and he knew it would take time.

In a line that the late John McKay would certainly appreciate, Hiatt called his first season “Year Zero.”

Basically, it meant that he was not counting the 2016-17 season as the first year of the rebuilding project.

It might have sounded like McKay saying he had a “five-year plan” to get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl.

Why a five-year plan?

“I had a five-year contract,” McKay said. “If I had a three-year contract, I would have had a three-year plan. So that’s how smart I was.”

Hiatt was not trying to be cute or to trick the Oredigger administration into paying him for an extra year or two. The coach already had a record of winning at Westminster College, and he had full support from the school.

The roster Hiatt and then assistant Derek Selvig had a few solid building blocks left over from former head coach Patrick O’Herron. But the roster took a step back in the shuffle that followed the new coach.

In guys like John Chapman, Carson Dummer and Butte Central graduate Kale Guldseth, though, O’Herron left over some guys that help build the culture Hiatt was looking for at Montana Tech.

They also helped build a foundation of a winning program on the hill.

Maybe they were not “foundation pieces,” but Chapman, Dummer and Guldseth were certainly guys who built the forms for the footing that led to the Orediggers cutting down the nets last Thursday night.

Hiatt’s Orediggers are conference champions.

Sure, they share that distinction with Carroll College, which is no stranger to raising basketball banners to their rafters. The Orediggers, though, will now have their first men’s basketball banner since the 1998-99 team won the Frontier Conference tournament on that crazy Scott Finely buzzer-beater in Dillon.

It has been a long 23 years since that Finley shot. A very, very long 23 years.

Hiatt’s first season was a long one, too.

At 7-21, the Orediggers were one game worse than the previous season. They went just 1-16 in Frontier Conference play.

The team, though, had some fight. It had some spunk. It had a toughness that was impossible to mistake.

That “Year Zero” team included a freshman named Dylan Pannabecker. He came to town after winning a couple of Class B state titles under head coach Matt Luedtke, who is now leading Butte High’s boys.

Pannabecker played as a true freshman, and his career ended after the 2019-20 season, so he was not around for the COVID season or the Super Senior season that followed.

He was, however, very much a part of the team that cut down the net. He may as well have been holding the ladder.

The next season, Hiatt hit gold with a recruiting class that included Taylor England, Derrius Collins, Drew Huse and Christian Jones.

Hiatt’s second season saw a huge improvement for the Orediggers in the overall record. The team went 13-17. However, Tech was just 4-14 in league play.

In 2018-19, the Orediggers posted their first overall winning record under Hiatt at 17-15. The team still lagged behind the tough Frontier Conference, finishing with a 6-12 record.

The next season, the Orediggers added Cody Baumstarck and the great Sindou Diallo.

“Soarin’ Sindou is a name that will be remembered about these parts for years to come. Don Heater, “Flyin’ Brian Vaughns, “Soarin’” Sindou Diallo.

He is that good.

With the addition of Diallo and the dunks, Oredigger games started to become a must-watch event. While the crowds might have numbered in the hundreds when Diallo threw down his most electrifying dunks, someday thousands will claim to have been there to see it live.

Tech went 18-12 overall and jumped over .500 with a 10-8 mark in Frontier play. They earned a home playoff game.

In December of that season, the Orediggers went to Missoula and knocked off the University of Montana 74-72 in a non-conference game that, presumably, means they will not soon get another invitation to Dahlberg Arena.

Finally, in Year Four, which was Hiatt’s fifth year on campus, the Orediggers were really ready to really win.

Unfortunately, so was the pandemic.

Tech went 13-11 overall and 12-8 in conference while playing in empty gyms. The Orediggers won a home playoff game, even though no fans were allowed into the HPER Complex to watch it.

You could only imagine how much fun those big wins would have been if fans were allowed inside. Instead, the season had the feel of the KC League, only players did not call their own fouls.

This year, Tech added another generational talent in Caleb Bellach. He transferred to Tech from Montana State to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jeff, who was an Oredigger star when Finely hit that shot.

Suddenly, the close losses and near misses were a thing of the past. No longer are the Orediggers picking up moral victories of effort. They are getting real ones.

Lots of them.

So far this season, the Orediggers are 24-6 overall. They captured a share of the Frontier Conference regular-season title by going 13-2.

On Friday, Tech will host a semifinal game in the Frontier Conference tournament.

It is the first Frontier Conference regular-season title in men’s basketball at Tech since 1993, but it just might be the best Tech team since Kelvin Sampson roamed the sideline.

The Orediggers are certainly the most exciting they have been since Vaughns was throwing down all those dunks.

That championship journey started in “Year Zero,” and it was a long road.

“My first two years, and even three years, it was taking a lot of lumps,” England said after Thursday’s net-cutting victory. “There was a lot of close games, and we just couldn’t get over the hump. Then we got Sindou, and the buzz around the program was unreal. This year Caleb is getting over the top.”

That journey is not done, either. Tech is one win away from the Frontier Conference championship game.

A Tech-Carroll title tilt in Helena is far from a given, but it would have to rank as one of the biggest sporting events for Montana Tech since the Orediggers played Lyle Alzado and Yankton College in the Copper Bowl.

Tens of thousands will eventually claim to have been there to watch the game live.

Then, the Oredigger will likely head to a four-team regional of the NAIA National Tournament. If all goes well, that will be in Butte.

No matter how the 2020 season ends, though, it is impossible to deny that Hiatt knew what he was talking about when he called that first season “Year Zero.”

Along the way, Hiatt has been adding some terrific recruiting classes. While the Orediggers will lose some irreplaceable pieces to graduation, the program appears to be one that will be a force in the Frontier Conference for years to come.

That is something that you will have no problem saying with a straight face.

— Bill Foley, who has a hard time saying anything with a straight face, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.



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