MISSOULA – The best thing that could have happened to Bigfork this year, ironically, was a loss.
Carrying a 32-game winning streak into its matchup with Deer Lodge on Jan. 5, the reigning Class B state champions were defeated by the Wardens, 49-47, to snap that run. But Bigfork coach Sam Tudor said, if anything, that loss has helped ease some of the strain that comes with a winning streak that long.
“We were rattled there for a minute or two but right when we got into the locker room we were already talking about pressure’s off and let’s start finding out who we are this year,” Tudor said. “It’s hard going in day in and day out and having that target on your back all of the time.
“We can kind of loosen up now and just play. We’ve talked about that it’s ok to lose as long as you learn from that, and we’ve learned a lot. I think you can expect some good things in the upcoming months.”
The Vikings bounced back with wins over Thompson Falls (63-31) and Florence (56-23) over the weekend to improve to 9-1 on the year. Basic fundamentals have been the key as of late, something Tudor said has gotten better as the team has rebounded. Bigfork was ranked at No. 3 in the latest 406mtsports.com high school basketball polls.
The expectations were just as high coming into this season. Bigfork lost three seniors from last year’s team, but the Vikings are even more of a veteran squad this season with eight seniors suiting up for Tudor.
A team chock-full of athletes, seniors Anders Epperly, Logan Gilliard, Randy Stultz and twin brothers Clayton and Colton Reichenbach make up Bigfork’s usual starting five. Tudor said Gilliard, who stands at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, recently gave a verbal commitment to be a preferred walk-on for Montana State's football team while Stultz is set to play baseball at MSU Billings.
Epperly, who has started for Bigfork since his freshman year, is nearing the state’s career assist record as well, according to his coach. Tudor said Epperly currently has 680 career assists with the state record being 691 set by Randy Robinson of Kremlin-Gildford back in 1991-1992.
Bigfork is going through the process to make it official by having the MHSA verify all of those stats. But Tudor believes his senior point guard will break the record this weekend.
“This group of seniors is a very stable bunch. Unfortunately we didn’t win in Deer Lodge but their reaction was exactly what you would want,” Tudor said. “We didn’t lose our heads, went back into the locker room, talked about it and we’re going to put that train back on the track.”
Up next, the Vikings have Eureka and St. Ignatius on Thursday and Friday, and from there it’s doing everything they can to replicate last year. This time, with one blemish on their record.
“As far as defending the title, we have to get there first,” Tudor said. “I think we’re going to be doing some pretty good things this next month.”
Seeley-Swan girls stay undefeated in 13-C
A roller-coaster season has the Seeley-Swan girls basketball team at a pretty good spot atop the District 13-C standings.
Sporting a 7-4 record overall but 5-0 mark in in the 13-C, the Blackhawks are aiming to get back to the divisional tournament, a goal they achieved last year, but this time win a few games and see if that might propel Seeley-Swan to its first appearance at state since 2016, when the Blackhawks made a semifinal run.
Coming out of Christmas break, Seeley-Swan coach Michael Robbins said the team took some time to get back into the flow of things. The Blackhawks lost a pair of games to Charlo (54-30) and Philipsburg (43-36) at the turn of the New Year, but they made some adjustments to defeat Darby (48-36) and Victor (66-7) over the most recent weekend to get back on track.
“I feel like we’re starting to really click. We’ve learned a lot,” the second-year coach said.
Robbins pointed to his captains — seniors Autumn Morse and Ashley Miller and junior Terra Bertsch — as the players driving Seeley-Swan’s season so far. Robbins said Morse, the team’s point guard, serves as the vocal leader while Miller and Bertsch are more lead-by-example players on the court.
The Blackhawks have six seniors this season after having none a year ago. So experience from last year’s playoff run is hoping to pay dividends this year, provided the team stays healthy.
The Blackhawks were the No. 2 seed coming out of the 13-C heading into divisionals, where they went two-and-out. Health certainly didn’t help as Morse and Miller were limited by injuries.
“This is a veteran team that had a lot to learn last year and we went to divisionals a little wide-eyed,” Robbins said. “This year I think we’re a little more focused.
“The big thing for me is play hard and give me your entire game and we’ll take the wins and the losses at the end of the game. We try to keep our expectations to what we feel is reasonable as a team and if we exceed that, we’ll be happy with it.”
Staying healthy is the biggest key for Robbins and his team going forward. That worry isn’t without reason either.
“The girls I have are fierce competitors,” Robbins said. “When they’re injured, they want to play through sometimes even broken bones.
“They’re a tough group. It’s fun coaching them.”
Darby boys carry success over from football
Richard Griffin has had plenty of time to think about basketball.
The Darby boys basketball coach is the assistant fire management officer in Darby, so thanks to the government shutdown, Griffin hasn’t had to go in to work since the furlough began Dec. 22.
But the way he looks at it, it’s in more of a positive light.
“You always try to plan for something like this,” he said. “I’m doing good. Plus I got the time to give to all of the kids.”
Darby is off to a 9-1 start this basketball season after most recently defeating Seeley-Swan (60-51) and Clark Fork (56-47). The win over the Blackhawks gave Darby sole possession of first place in the 13-C at 5-0.
Athletic success is rubbing off for the Tigers. Griffin said about 75 percent of his roster played football in the fall when Darby made its first postseason appearance in 27 years in the opening round of the 8-Man playoffs.
Those players have tasted success, and with first-year coach Griffin and his staff, they’ve adjusted nicely through this point of the season.
“We’ve been able to utilize that camaraderie to come together and play while they’re learning a new system,” Griffin said. “You bring a new coaching staff in, inevitably there are changes that occur and the boys have been open to it.
“They’ve been approachable, they work hard at practice every day. The leadership from the seniors has really set the tone for the year to start.”
Four seniors have paced Darby in Dylan Parks, Cole Kayser, Brandon Winters and Daniel Muir. Griffin said Parks, Kayser and Winters start while Muir provides a spark off of the bench.
While the seniors provide leadership, Griffin said he can rotate 10 to 11 players in any game. Griffin was previously the girls basketball coach at Plains for six years before taking a year off two years ago and assistant coaching with Hamilton’s girls team last season. His father, Wendell Griffin, is an assistant on his staff and was the head coach of the Darby girls basketball team back in the '80s and '90s.
The Western C is a tough divisional to emerge from for state with the likes of Arlee and Manhattan Christian awaiting any challenger. But for the Tigers, they’re focused on themselves as they head into the homestretch of the regular season as January begins to wind down.
“We’re focused on Victor on Friday and Lincoln on Saturday and if you asked me who we play next week, I haven’t even looked,” Griffin said. “I’ve been going one week at a time with these guys.”