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Missoula Hellgate veteran boys basketball coach Jeff Hays calls out orders during a game at Missoula Sentinel last month. The top-ranked Knights will host the Spartans in a much-anticipated rematch Thursday night at Hellgate.

MISSOULA — They're cool in an old-school way, and they're right under our nose in River City.

They play a smooth, unselfish style of basketball in a gym that's roughly 75 years old. And their coach is one of the most humble and dedicated guys you'd ever want to meet, which helps explain why many of the best high school hoopsters in town want to play on his team.

Have you figured it out yet?

It's the No. 1-ranked Missoula Hellgate boys basketball squad. A group that has yet to lose to a Treasure State foe and may stay that way through March.

Back in my Iowa hometown, which is roughly the same size as Missoula except without NCAA Division I sports, they'd go nuts for a team like the Knights. We're talking park-your-car-three-blocks-away nuts, get-there-an-hour-early nuts.

Hellgate draws decent crowds, but too many people are missing out. This throwback bunch has a high school quarterback that doubles as the best basketball player in Missoula and multi-sport stars who gladly accept their roles, just to be a part of something special.

"They develop relationships with their teammates in other sports and they bring that here," Hellgate coach Jeff Hays gushed. "(Matt) Baldridge coming off the bench, he's the Gatorade Player of the Year in soccer, terrific athlete. He's accepted his role in coming off the bench and making us better.

"You've got Rollie Worster, who played every down in football (including QB on offense). It's terrifying for me. A nerve racking deal. But he loves to play and is a great competitor."

This isn't the first season the Knights have been impressive under Hays. You may recall they garnered a state championship back when Oregon State sharpshooter Tres Tinkle was on the team in 2013. Tinkle was a once-in-a-lifetime type of talent, but this 2018-19 team also has some unique qualities.

"They're the total package, loaded," Kalispell Flathead coach Ross Gustafson said after a recent blowout loss to the Knights. "They've got Rollie running the point. They've got the big man Abe (Johnson). They've got really nice wings in (Bridger) Deden and Fisher (Richardson) and (Dylan) Holst.

"The thing with them too is they're not going to beat themselves. If you're going to take down Hellgate, you're going to have to play a great game. They're not going to turn the ball over casually and have defensive breakdowns."

One of my favorite things about Hays is he doesn't pretend to be John Wooden. Just as he tries to push and enlighten his players on a daily basis, he works to improve himself.

There's a lesson in there for all of us who feel as though we've arrived.

"One of my goals for the year was to be more composed, more positive," he offered. "Since then we've been great. I've been a lot better.

"I'm trying to set a better example where I'm just not uptight. I don't want that to rub off on my players."

Outside of that one loss before Christmas to Coeur d'Alene — the Idaho team connected on nine 3-pointers and went 23 for 25 at the foul line — Hays couldn't be more pleased with his Knights (13-1). He loves how his guys have embraced the team concept.

"I feel like we're playing the right way, caring about each other the right way," said the coach, whose team overcame a four-point deficit in the final two minutes to win at Helena Capital Saturday.

"Everybody wants that ultimate goal of a state championship and so do I. But we always talk about we're all about the process. We need to enjoy it. You're going to need to play well and get lucky to win it all, have things go your way at the right times."   

They tell me it's been five years since they packed the ol' gym at Hellgate High. There's a chance it could happen Thursday night when the Knights play host to crosstown rival Sentinel in a battle of the top two Western AA teams at 7:15 p.m.

Let's make it happen — for love of the game.

Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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