Montana Tech basketball isn’t letting the challenges of COVID-19 deter them from their goals, or their relationships.

Despite players like senior standouts Taylor England and Sindou Diallo returning to their respective homes of Helena and Seattle, Washington to ensure health and limit the spread of the coronavirus, the pair, head coach Adam Hiatt and the rest of the Orediggers have found new outlets to improve in the few months after the 2019 season.

From Diallo’s perspective, life is significantly different than the environment in Butte. The guard returned home after averaging 19.8 points per game and leading Tech as a scorer in his first year in Silver Bow County, but home means a much different environment than the one the Mining City currently experiences.

The three counties that makeup the metropolitan area, Pierce County, King County and Snohomish County, have registered 12,296 cases and 794 deaths at the time of writing and while the senior said that things have gone well enough since getting home, it’s still much different in terms of restrictions and seriousness compared to Montana, who has fortunately only registered 516 cases and 456 recoveries.

“I have a 12-8 shift and I usually get my cardio done in the morning before I have work,” Diallo said. “Then I usually try to find time to get in the gym. If I can’t get in a gym, I usually go outside and do some ball-handling or just lay on my bed and shoot.

“It’s been hard getting in gyms back here in Seattle, because the virus has been crazy and everything that’s going on with the Black Lives Matter protests. There’s just no time right now for people to get in the gym, it’s not what people are thinking about.”

England also returned home to Helena, who joins the rest of Montana in a cautious reopening. The environments are different, but like Diallo, the former Helena High Bengal is focused on staying active and staying sharp after earning his second NAIA All-America Honorable Mention selection.

“It’s been weird not being in Butte and not going to the HPER to workout,” England said. “But being in Helena, I’ve had the opportunity to get in gyms because I know a lot of people here. My home high school and Cap City, my main gym here just opened back up.”

Also like Diallo, England is working a full-time job, doing hardscaping in the Helena area.

While balancing significant offseason practice and full-time employment came across as typical activities from Diallo and England’s words, Hiatt said it explains why the pair was so important for Tech last season and will continue to be in 2020.

“There’s a reason why these two guys are stud basketball players and athletes,” Hiatt said. “Both of them are working 40 hours a week, just doing hard work and it’s a testament to all the time they’ve put in to better themselves. If you can handle a 40-hour-a-week job doing something you don’t love or lifting 85-pound blocks like Taylor is, then you’re destined for greatness.”

According to Hiatt, Diallo and England, that scenario is the norm for the Orediggers. With Hiatt publishing a book this past April, it’s not surprising that his players are also balancing multiple responsibilities and passion.

However, the end of basketball season and start of a hectic and busy offseason has led to constant communication from Hiatt and his players. There’s room to grow in conversation about basketball, although Diallo says the conversation gets off-topic sometimes.

“Hiatt makes sure that the team has gatherings,” said Diallo. “If not twice a week, once a week for sure, just so that everyone knows how much work people are putting in. We can have a chemistry over the phone, we know everybody and all the players coming in.

“We consistently keep it to basketball, but usually we veer off and have debates on WhatsApp and talk about Kobe being better than Michael Jordan… [Coach Hiatt] doesn’t like that, but I’m Kobe over anybody.”

Hiatt and fellow England immediately laughed during the Zoom call with the Oredigger trio, but the head coach says the argument is based around who your idols were as a kid.

“I’m an MJ guy and they know that,” Hiatt said. “But that’s a product of what you grow up with. Sindou grew up with Kobe, I grew up with MJ so that’s my guy.

Keeping the “debates” over the greatest player of all time likely won’t stop, and why would they? In a setting focused around hard work surrounded by a hectic landscape, those kind of fun, but pointless conversations are a source of fun and normalcy.

But after a hectic, separated offseason, Tech returns as a team at the end of June to prepare for the Orediggers’ development camps that start at the beginning of July.

“It’s definitely a strange two months from the coaching perspective,” Hiatt said. “Because we’re used to having our guys all the way up to May, doing spring workouts, open gyms and bringing kids on campus and we’ve kind of missed out on that opportunity… We’re certainly looking forward to having the guys back on campus at the end of the month for our basketball camps at the beginning of July, so it’ll be fun to have everyone around.”

While the return is a sign that competing again is just a bit closer, Hiatt, Diallo and England agree that the best thing about the start of camps isn’t the competition, it’s getting to continue the relationships that make the game worth playing.

“Down the road,” England said. “You’re not going to remember every game you played, but you remember all the teammates and connections you have with certain teammates that you’ve helped. It’s more important than basketball itself, it’s meeting those people.”

Hiatt tacked on to what his senior said, saying that one of the biggest perks when coaching in the NAIA’s Frontier Conference’s is that it remains an intimate enough environment that those relationships are genuine and meaningful.

“The reason why I love this level of where I am from a professional standpoint,” Hiatt said. “Is because I am a hyper-competitive person, and I want to win more than anybody, but nothing is more important than the relationships. You’re able to develop deep, profound relationships with the guys that come through your program, and that to me is so much more important to me than anything else.”

Until then, Hiatt and his team will continue their work, counting down the days until the Orediggers are able to meet up again.

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