MISSOULA — Under ordinary circumstances, Saturday's start to the Montana high school winter sports season wouldn't mean quite as much.

It means everything this year. Maybe because it could all be ripped away in a heartbeat amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"I keep telling the guys, 'We don't know if there's going to be a tomorrow, so when we're in here, we have to cherish every moment and make the most of it,'" said Missoula Big Sky boys basketball coach Ryan Hansen, whose Eagles are slated to host Butte Saturday.

"I really feel bad for the seniors in general with the weird year in school and sports. The parents, there's only going to be 25 (fans) allowed at a game. I think the seniors are pretty nervous right now but also excited. They just want a shot to show what they can do."

Teams have been practicing since early December and the wait for game action has been extra long. Missoula's three Class AA basketball teams typically have a chance to match up with the three Billings Class AA squads, but that's all out the window.

"They're definitely getting real itchy," Hansen said of his players. "They didn't even get a summer program in, so they're antsy and excited.

"Usually we'd have like four tournaments and maybe some games set up in the summer. And typically the boys like to go do the Gonzaga camp and things like that. That all got shut down. I know some of the teams in places like Kalispell got in a summer tournament or two, but Missoula is more strict. We were shut down completely."

Hansen is an optimist. The perfect kind of leader for these unsettling times. Thankfully, this state has a lot of them.

If there's one thing the COVID-19 crisis has hammered home, it's the fact that high school sports mean a lot to a lot of people. Perhaps more than we ever realized.

Without them, there's a void. An innocence is lost — not just for the players and coaches but cities and towns.

The father of three small children and husband to a supportive wife, Hansen carries the torch of hope like a lot of his peers.

No one is going to list his team among the favorites to take a state championship and that's OK. Championship trophies tarnish and eventually end up being tossed on a scrap heap to make room for new ones.

But the simple act of practicing and playing with friends, that's priceless.

"There's a real excitement in general with our program," Hansen gushed, pointing out that his team made a step forward in winning three games last winter. "We've got some people that were hurt last year back, so we're going to be a lot more competitive and the kids are just excited for that.

"They're tired of losing."

We're all tired of losing. Losing loved ones. Losing time with family. Losing jobs.

It all makes high school sports seem sort of trivial. Inconsequential with all the misery out there.

But take it from a father who has seen the positive impacts of high school sports on his now-20-something children: That's a helluva lot easier to say without a dog in the hunt.

"We just have to be thankful for every minute we get," Hansen offered.

Well said, Coach.

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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