Sentinel vs. Hellgate 04 (copy)

Missoula Hellgate's Josh Wade (20) jumps in the air while guarding Missoula Sentinel's Soren Syvrud in the Knights' win last week. Wade and the Knights are on an offensive tear, scoring 70 points in six consecutive games after being held to a season-low 44 in their conference opener.

MISSOULA — Thompson Falls wasn’t expected to be here — not with a new head coach and just two returning starters from a team that won five games last year.

The Blue Hawks hadn’t even had a winning season since going 11-10 in 2014 and haven’t made the state tournament since 2003, so there hasn’t been a recent history of success.

Yet here Thompson Falls is, playing meaningful basketball in February for the first time in a long time and enjoying arguably their best season in over a decade. The Blue Hawks are ranked eighth in Class B, have a 12-2 record and are in contention for the Western 7-B title as they visit No. 1 Loyola on Thursday.

So while this type of season wasn’t projected to be happening, first-year Thompson Falls coach Chadd Laws saw some inklings of potential when he took over the team in the summer. It’s his first time coaching the girls after leading the Thompson Falls boys team from 2000-14.

“There was some hesitation among the girls this summer, but they started to see we were a good team and bought into our message,” Laws said. “As coaches, we continually pushed them to say we can do a lot of good stuff. The biggest thing is the buy-in from the players with what we’re doing. We believe in one another. We trust one another. And we work hard.”

As for what the message is preached by Laws and assistant coaches Mike Benson and Sandra Kazmierczak, who he estimated have about 70 years of coaching experience between the three of them: “We want to be the best Thompson Falls we can be,” Laws said.

The Blue Hawks have found success this year with an uptempo offense operated by a team that runs eight to nine players deep. They’re averaging 59.1 points per game and are allowing just 35.1, an average margin of victory of 24 points.

Thompson Falls is putting up those numbers by shooting 41% from the field with 17 assists per game while holding the opposition to 27% shooting with just seven assists on average. The Blue Hawks are out-rebounding teams by 11 per game, 36-25.

They’re also undefeated at home in front of a supportive crowd that’s rallied around them. Laws credited the success so far to the work the players have put in since the summer, the dedication of the staff and the fan support in the small town.

“In anything you do in life that involves a group of people, you have to have established a relationship,” Laws said. “That was one of our No. 1 goals. We wanted to have that relationship with the kids. That was the first big step is that we were going to become a team first. The kids bought into our system.”

Thompson Falls features all-state junior Megan Baxter, a 6-foot-1 forward who’s averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game with her ability to shoot the ball and attack the rim. She’s one of two returning starters along with first-team all-conference junior Jody Detlaff, a 6-foot forward who’s used her toughness and motor to average 13 points, nine rebounds and three steals.

They’re joined by a trio of guards all in their first year starting: freshman Ellie Baxter, junior Faith Frields and senior Belle Cooper, who didn’t play last year. Baxter, the point guard, has used her handles to dish out four assists per game while averaging 13 points and three steals.

Frields and Cooper have been key in helping to lead to a complete team defense, as have sophomore Elli Pardee and junior Riley Wilson, two players who come off the bench along with sophomore Caity Alexander and senior Reagan Hanks.

“We’re getting a good rotation of players and don’t have a let-off when we sub in,” Laws said.

The Blue Hawks have won 12 of 13 games since dropping their season opener at defending state runner-up Florence, 47-41. They’re on a six-game winning streak after losing a 51-47 contest at conference foe Eureka, starting their streak by beating Bigfork for the first time since January 2013 and most recently topping Anaconda, the No. 2 team in the Western 6-B.

Thompson Falls will take on Western 6-B leader Loyola on Thursday as they try to become the first team to beat the Breakers. Their 12 wins are tied for their most since 2013, and one more win will give them their most since 2009, when they went 14-10.

“We know they’re No. 1 for a reason,” Laws said of Loyola. “They’re tremendous. They get up and down the court pretty fast. They’re so athletic. They shoot the ball so well. We can be successful even if we don’t come out with as many points as them. We’re just trying to get better every day and be successful with the little things.”

Hellgate heats up

The floodgates have opened in recent weeks for the top-ranked and undefeated Missoula Hellgate boys.

The Knights have scored 70 or more points in six consecutive Western AA games after being held to a season-low 44 in their conference opener Jan. 9 at Helena High. They’re averaging 74.8 points per game since that game, well above their Class AA-leading season average of 68 points.

The keys to the increased output and efficiency have been a change in the starting lineup, a simplified offense and, maybe surprisingly, an increased focus on defense.

The changes started to be implemented during halftime of the game against Helena. The Knights entered the locker room with just an 18-11 lead in a low-scoring game caused partly by Helena’s offense playing at a glacial pace, limiting the number of possessions in the game.

“We said we need to swallow our pride, swallow our ego because it’s not going to be a high-scoring game,” Hays recalled ahead of the Knights’ first game against the Bengals since then as they begin their second run through the Western AA on Thursday. “We asked the guys, ‘Do you want to win?’ They all responded like, ‘Yeah, we want to win.’ So I’m like, ‘Let’s just go win and not worry about the offensive side of things.’

“Prior to that, we hadn’t been shooting very well. I wouldn’t say we shot well the second half, but we at least had some confidence. We got that win and were like, ‘We don’t have to worry about the offense. Let’s go defend and just try to win.’ I think once we got into that mindset, it’s kind of clicked for us. We have been riding that momentum since then.”

The Knights’ increased focus on defense, especially running their press earlier in games, has led to easier scoring opportunities in transition. On other nights, they’ve found their shooting touch and had offensive success with their play in the half court.

The latter has been aided by the switch back to the offense the Knights ran last season, one which emphasizes ball movement. They had been trying to implement multiple new offenses at the same time early in the season but took a break from that.

“We never got into a flow, and we never got our confidence in what we were doing,” Hays said. “It was a learning process for the players to understand what’s expected of them but also for the coaches to understand what we can do to help them be successful and put them in the right position. We experimented with it. We’re still adjusting, trying to find ways to keep it fresh.”

Another change Hays made was switching up the starting lineup after the win at Helena. He decided to pair juniors Josh Wade and Beckett Arthur alongside 6-3 Utah State signee Rollie Worster, 6-8 Army commit Abe Johnson and 6-3 senior Cam LaRance

The Knights have started that same lineup the past six games, during which Worster is putting up a team-best 19.5 points per game, LaRance is averaging 16.8 and Johnson is at 15.2 on average. Wade is adding 7.3 points and Arthur is chipping 6.3 points during that stretch.

“We’ve really just preached as a group making the right play regardless of who our opponent is or what the score is,” Hays said. “That could be taking the shot or passing up a shot. It could be driving and making a pass. It could be driving and finishing. That’s one thing I’ve been really appreciative of with Beckett and Josh and all our guys is they’re making the right basketball play. We have enough guys that it makes it really tough to defend all of them.”

Lively Libby

Libby basketball coach Josh Bean said before the season that the Browning Indians were the Northwest A favorite until “someone steps up and knocks them off.” His Loggers did just that this past weekend, handing Browning its first conference loss in seven games this season.

Libby improved to 11-2 overall and 5-1 in conference as it heads into a tough stretch to close the regular season with a chance to win its first league crown since 2004, when it captured the Western A title.

“Coming into the year, we had three people with quite a bit of experience, so we knew we had a good foundation,” Bean said. “We had to fill in some pieces, and they’ve blended in nicely with what we’ve wanted to do offensively and defensively. We still have a tough stretch coming up that’s really going to test us to see where we are and how we have progressed.”

Libby has been led by returning starters Keith Johnson, a 6-foot-4 senior forward, and Jay Beagle, a 5-10 junior guard. Johnson is averaging a 11.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game to go with his 12 total blocks, all team bests. Beagle is adding 7.6 points and a team-leading 3.2 assists.

The Loggers have filled their starting lineup with 5-10 senior guard Chandler Bower, 5-11 senior guard Ryan Goodman and 6-5 sophomore forward Caden Williams, three players who had past experience on the team. Williams is averaging 10.8 points, Goodman is adding 7.4 points  and a team-best 28 total steals, and Bower is chipping in 3.2 points. TJ Anderson, a 6-4 sophomore forward, is averaging five points per game off the bench.

The Loggers rely more on their passing, screening and cutting than brute physicality since they’re on the lighter side weight-wise. That includes down low, where Johnson and Williams can step out to use their height to make passes or hit mid-range jumpers.

Defensively, the Loggers have fund success with their man defense while tinkering with a 1-3-1 zone and traps to use their length. The man defense vexed Browning while the Loggers cleaned up on the boards, broke the press and got 25 points from Johnson.

“I’m proud of the way the kids are coming together and playing for one another,” Bean said. “One of our mottos is, ‘Don’t let your teammates down.’ They’re all making plays together. It’s been fun for me to coach them and be part of it on the sidelines.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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