MISSOULA — Whitefish senior Dillon Botner accomplished one long-shot dream in December when he signed to play football for the Montana Grizzlies.
Another goal of his is looking like it could be more of a possibility, this one on the hardwood. With Botner averaging a near double-double, the senior-laden Bulldogs appear to be on their way to their first winning season since 2013-14 and potentially their first state tournament since 2008-09 after a revolving door of coaches.
“I wanted to finish out my senior year with them, and hopefully we can do something special this year,” Botner said prior to Whitefish’s final regular-season home game Tuesday night against Ronan. “A team from Whitefish hasn’t been to state in quite a while, and we think we can maybe do it this year. That’d be awesome.”
Whitefish entered Tuesday’s game at 9-4 overall and 5-2 in Northwest A play, trailing only Browning (12-1, 8-0). It’s been quite the turnaround after the Bulldogs went 2-15, 0-10 last year and finished last in the six-team conference.
This year’s group, under the direction of first-year head coach Scott Smith, has focused on defense and holding opponents under 50 points. The Bulldogs' lineup features five seniors who’ve played together since sixth grade, with Botner joined by Lee Walburn, Jack Schwaiger, Ryan Kemm and Mark Anderson.
“This year, we really bought into the defensive side and said, ‘We’re not going to let these guys score,’” Botner said. “That’s one of our biggest things is we want to hold teams to as little points as possible to give us a chance to win. We’ve all bought into that with defense and rebounding, so they don’t get another chance to score. I think that’s made a big difference is having our seniors being able to buy in and showing the younger guys this is how we’re going to win games off of defense.”
At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, Botner is a load for opponents to handle down low. He’s averaging 11.5 points, second on the team to Walburn's 18.7, to go with his 9.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 blocks and 0.4 steals.
“Dillon’s starting to be a lot more aggressive offensively and defensively,” said Smith, a 1994 Whitefish grad. “He’s big, athletic but hasn’t been as assertive. He’s starting to figure out that he is a 6-6 kid and can dominate if he wants to. Teams have been having a hard time defending him because of his size, his physicality and just the effort he gives.”
Before coming to Whitefish, Botner grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and moved when he was in middle school. He started football in third grade, hoped to play any sport in college but didn’t think it’d be football when he missed his entire junior season because of surgery to fix a dislocated kneecap.
Botner returned in time for his junior basketball season and followed that up with track and field before hitting the gridiron in the fall. About one month into his first varsity season as a starter, he heard from Montana State and got a preferred walk-on spot from the Cats. As the season wound down, the Griz got in contact and offered him a scholarship covering tuition.
“It’s close to home,” Botner said of his decision to attend Montana. “I’m going into pre-med and they have a good pre-med program. Also, I just really liked the coaches. They’re all really nice guys and they care for the best of you. I went down there for my visit, and talking with the players, they’re a lot like me. I felt like I fit in there. They love the game and want to play and do the best that they could. They’re really nice guys and welcomed me in. They’re just friendly.”
Botner earned second-team all-conference honors as an offensive tackle and a defensive end as a senior, in addition to playing tight end for the 5-5 Bulldogs. At Montana, he’s expecting to play on the offensive line, but where he fits in could depend on a number of factors.
Right now, Botner’s focus is on making the basketball season one to remember. Whitefish hosts districts, will travel to Hamilton for divisionals if it qualifies and will try to earn a berth to state at divisionals.
“We’re excited,” Botner said. “We want to go to state. That’d be a good way to end it. Hopefully help some of the younger guys, too. We want to leave the team better than when we came in.”