ARLEE — The voice comes booming out of Arlee’s basketball gym when the door is opened.
“Seven … six … five …,” Arlee boys basketball coach Zachary Conko-Camel belts out Monday evening.
The Warriors coach has his team running a fast-break drill where they have seven seconds after grabbing a rebound or giving up a basket to advance the ball down the court and get up a high-quality shot. Whether the shot is made or missed, Conko-Camel starts up the count again as the other team of five players tries to do the same thing.
This goes on for one minute. Then two minutes. Then five minutes. It’s only interrupted by a new count.
“Ten … nine … eight,” Conko-Camel bellows from the sideline while his players sprint down the court and back in 10 seconds as a punishment for turning over the ball during the drill. Then the count starts back up at seven as the players hustle back to continue their initial drill.
“It’s always been uptempo for me,” Conko-Camel said. “My brother and I, we’ve always coached the way we’d want to play and watch. That’s trapping and pressing and shooting 3s and solid teamwork, passing the ball, getting somebody open and hoping they get you open the next time.”
It’s a bit of controlled chaos in the gym as the Warriors prepare for the State B tournament this Thursday in Butte. And what better word to describe Arlee’s season than chaotic.
The Warriors, who’ve made it to the State C championship game four years in a row, have had nearly every possibly chip stacked against them this season. They lost eight seniors, four starters and three all-state players to graduation last year. Their longtime coach also stepped down.
Then the season started. The Warriors were playing Class B, not Class C teams. They had a low turnout, went through injuries and called up eighth graders. They played close games but went winless in conference play and didn’t beat a Class B team until the regular-season finale.
Come playoffs, the Warriors were dead last in the West and had to win a play-in game just to make the postseason. Out of the blue, they swept their way through the Western B Divisional tournament and are now heading to state as the region’s No. 1 seed.
“It’s kind of like a Cinderella story,” Arlee senior Billy Fisher said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Reload, not rebuild
Conko-Camel took over with a challenge on his hands to replace Zanen Pitts, who coached Arlee to five consecutive state tournaments, won two titles and placed second twice in addition to launching The Warrior Movement, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit focused on raising awareness for suicide, mental health, bullying and school violence.
Conko-Camel, a basketball lifer from Ronan, spent the past 20 years as the men’s coach at Salish Kootenai College, so he had valuable experience despite never coaching in high school. Along the way, he coached his two sons, Zach Camel, now a grad assistant for the Washington Huskies, and Isaac Camel, an assistant coach for Arlee who played for Arlee’s 2012 third-place team coached by Conko-Camel’s younger brother, former Montana Grizzly JR Camel.
Conko-Camel had two goals in mind when he took the Arlee job after not being retained by SKC: mold his players into respectable people using the alcohol-free and drug-free lifestyle he said he and Isaac follow, and create a winning basketball team to help the seniors go out on top in what many believed would be a rebuilding year.
“This group of seniors deserved the opportunity to go out the right way, so I wanted to give them the opportunity to do it right,” Conko-Camel said. “Ask any one of these seniors if it’s a rebuilding year, and they’re like, ‘No. This is our chance. This is our time.’ I said, ‘Well then, we’re going to make it.’”
The Warriors are peaking at the right time, having gone 7-4 since opening the season 3-10. They’re averaging 63.7 points and giving up 61.8 on average.
Arlee’s one returning starter, Cody Tanner, is a 6-foot senior point guard and the leading scorer at about 20 points per game. He’s complemented by three other senior starters who were role players in previous seasons: Fisher, Zach Running Crane and Tapit Haynes.
“Cody’s our coach on the floor,” Conko-Camel said. "He knows how to control it and make the right decision at the right time."
Fisher is a 6-4 senior forward who can take bigs off the dribble, post up undersized players, grab rebounds and lead the break. Running Crane is the 6-5 senior forward who rebounds, sets screens, passes the ball out of the middle to cutting players and is the glue guy who brings the energy. Haynes, a 6-foot senior guard, is the top 3-point shooter and a bit of “a wild card,” as Conko-Camel called him.
"Coach likes to run a strict program," Running Crane said. "He doesn't like anybody falling out of line. I respect that."
The starting lineup is rounded out by 6-1 sophomore Levi Fullerton, a shooter and slasher who uses his speed to drive through the lane without fear of contact.
Off the bench, junior Micah Johnson started early in the year and is now the first sub as the top on-ball defender. Eighth grader Jace Arca completes the seven-player rotation that’s been whittled down from 10 by the ever-confident Conko-Camel.
“I’m always going in to win it all,” he said. “You just got to find out how you do it, the kind of people you have, what you have to improve on to win it all. We found it. Right now, we’re just going to keep going with it until we get stopped.”
Arlee went from one of the biggest schools in Class C to one of the smallest in Class B when it finally made a move that was announced in 2018.
The Warriors had 14 players come out for varsity and JV basketball and played their first four games with seven players due to eligibility issues. Fisher missed that stretch after having his appendix removed on the first day of practice.
Conko-Camel brought up seven eighth graders so Arlee could have enough players to scrimmage and fill out the bench. Four have made the 14-player travel roster for the postseason.
In addition to the youth, a large portion of the team wasn’t physically fit enough to press and run the uptempo style Conko-Camel wanted. So, he made a short-term change to a slower-paced style and a man-to-man defense while his players worked their way into shape.
“When they get going on their press, they’re as dangerous as anybody,” Conko-Camel said. “I’ve watched a couple different teams. Hellgate has a nice press, Browning has a nice press, Hardin has a nice press, we have a nice press. I would put our press up against any of those four.”
The Warriors were still a good team by Class C measures. They went 5-1 against those teams in the regular season, beating the eventual 13-C and 14-C champs while losing that one game by just one point in their second contest of the season.
The Class B teams presented struggles. Arlee went 1-10 against them before the playoffs and didn’t beat a Class B team until taking down Eureka in the regular-season finale Feb. 15.
“Everyone’s skill level is almost the same in Class B,” Fisher said, comparing Class B and Class C. “I feel like anyone can beat anyone really.”
Tanner added: “It’s not really talent-wise. It’s just bigger guys and taller guys. Talent’s still the same. Just deeper.”
Despite the losses piling up, Arlee was in many games. The Warriors went 1-7 in games decided by two or fewer possessions. They lost their eight Western 6B games by 25, six, six, 11, one, eight, three and 11 points.
The Warriors used those close losses — filled with foul troubles, rebounding issues and turnovers — as learning experiences. They went 3-1 in games decided by single digits during the playoffs after going 1-8 in such games during the regular season.
“That 6-B, everybody’s strong and physical and every team has five guys that known how to play basketball, so any one of those 6B basketball teams could be where we are right now,” Conko-Camel said. “They were all well coached, all had players that could do it, but we’re fortunate that all those tough games helped prepare us for the tournaments.”
‘0-8 all the way to state’
If there’s one thing Conko-Camel knows, it’s getting his team ready for tournament time. He led SKC to 12 AIHEC national championships in 20 seasons, using the regular season as a chance to improve by working on weaknesses and developing strengths.
He’s come up with a tongue-in-check slogan he’s used since the start of the postseason in February to challenge his guys
“‘0-8 all the way to state.’ That’s what our whole thing is,” Conko-Camel said with a laugh. “This is the easy part now. The hard part is getting to state.”
The Warriors almost didn’t even make the postseason. They needed overtime in the district play-in game to beat Florence, 86-79, on the road. They finally closed out a game, getting 39 points from Tanner.
“In that play-in game, I think we really found ourselves,” Running Crane said. “It was a big challenge for us to actually win it. We had our backs against the wall the whole time.”
The Warriors qualified for divisionals with the win at Florence but lost their next two games. They suffered a 64-55 loss to Deer Lodge in the semifinals and a 72-61 defeat to Loyola in the third-place game to wind up with the fourth and final seed out of the district.
All Arlee did at divisionals was knock off Eureka, the Western 7-B No. 1 seed, upset Bigfork, the reigning State B champion, and topple Deer Lodge, a team they had been 0-3 against. It was the Warrior’s first three-game winning streak of the entire season, and it came just in time to clinch one of the two available state berths.
“It was either win or go home, and something in our minds clicked,” Fisher said.
Tanner came up clutch at divisionals, leading all Warriors with 61 points across the three games. He scored 22 in the title game and 20 in the semifinals, while Haynes had a team-best 20 in the quarterfinal.
The Warriors still committed those turnovers at inopportune times but have been able to make up for it by forcing steals with their improving press. When they’ve needed something, they’ve seemed to get it lately.
“Everybody’s lived up to the moment,” Tanner said. “We were there all season. We just couldn’t finish. That was the worst feeling. That hurt us. But we came through and played well.”
‘They want it’
Arlee’s state championship banners hang in their gym, visible as players run through Conko-Camel’s seven-seconds-or-less fast break.
The teams that hung those State C banners in 2017 and 2018 featured Tyler Tanner, Cody Tanner’s older brother, and Philip Malatare, Cody’s cousin. While Cody was on both of those teams, he didn’t play a prominent role in bringing home either of those titles.
“Basically my two older brothers have gone and won it,” Cody said. “I want to be in that kind of talk with them.”
In making the final push, Arlee is hoping to have several key players at full strength for state. Running Crane is coming off a knee hyperextension but feels better and said he’ll be ready after taking off last week.
“I’m enjoying the ride and think everybody is,” said Running Crane, who transferred from Hellgate ahead of his junior season. “I never thought I’d be a part of something like this, but it’s great.”
Haynes is battling the flu but returned to practice Tuesday. Fisher is fighting through an illness in addition to a tweaked hip flexor he suffered in the play-in game.
It would take something drastic to keep any of them off the court starting Thursday against Rocky Boy.
“First year in Class B, it’d really make us look good if we won,” Fisher said. “We made it this far going 0-8, so we can still just keep pushing. We have it in our minds and hearts that we can keep going.”
Unlike the 2017 and 2018 title teams that went a combined 51-1, this year’s Warriors team got off to such a slow start that even if they go 3-0 at state to win the title, they’d still finish the season with a losing record at 13-14. It’s a fact the Conko-Camel laughs about when bringing it up.
No matter the record, Arlee is just three wins away from basketball immortality, so the proper count to start up may be: “Three … two … one.”
“If we win this, especially when nobody expected us to be here, it’ll be a pretty big deal,” Conko-Camel said. “This group of seniors, they want to be one of the best teams ever out of here. They just want it. They want it enough that I believe we’re going to do it.”