BUTTE — The Butte Central boys basketball team finally got to take a victory lap.
Over two months after the Maroons saw their State A championship game against Hardin called off due to the first reported cases of COVID-19 reaching the state of Montana — leaving them to settle for a co-championship with the Bulldogs — Central took a celebratory trip about town aboard a Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department Truck on Friday afternoon.
The players gathered in the Butte Plaza Mall parking lot to greet family and fans and then gathered atop rigs with engines blaring that took a path north on Harrison Avenue, through Uptown Butte and then south on Montana Street.
Central coach Brodie Kelly has had plenty of time to chew over how things ended. His initial feeling of stunned disbelief has given way to a leveled measure of acceptance.
“One of the conclusions I came to is this team is absolutely worthy of being recognized as a state champion,” Kelly said. “I feel like both teams (Central and Hardin) are deserving of recognition.”
For senior Jared Simkins, and many of his teammates, it was as much a celebration of what they accomplished as it was a reunion. The last time all of Central’s players were together was on the team bus heading back to Butte on the same Saturday they were supposed to take on Hardin in the title game. Coming together gave a feeling of closure to a season that concluded with a boulder-sized question mark.
“It’s great because I haven’t seen them in a while,” said Simkins. “It feels like the first day of practice again because we’ve been separated, doing quarantine. It’s just nice to see everyone.”
Simkins was one of nine seniors on an experience-laden squad. Like his coach, his disappointment has transitioned into a sense of peace.
“It was weird to start off but you have to accept what happened and make the best of the situation,” he said.
Aaron Richards, who heads to Montana State this fall where he’ll join Jeff Choate’s football team, was equally excited to reunite with his team, noting that it felt like “it had been a year” since they’d seen each other. He also echoed what has been a recurring theme for the Maroons the over the past months — they controlled what they could control.
“When we first found out it was hard to wrap your head around,” Richards said. “But as the months have gone by we realized that is was out of our control. We’re happy we accomplished what we did.”
While their 2019-20 campaign had an unceremonious ending, the road to that point was one to remember. The Maroons concluded the regular season at 8-2 in conference play and clinched the Southwest A crown with a 65-48 trouncing of Corvallis on Feb. 15.
At the Western A Tournament in Frenchtown, the Maroons fell to the host Broncs in the semifinals to come within one loss of seeing their season come to an end before going on to eke out a 41-40 victory over Hamilton. Central went on to roll past Polson 63-35 in the consolation semifinals to lock up a No. 3 seed at the state tournament.
At state, the Maroons toppled defending champion Billings Central 51-46 in the opening round before rolling past Browning 66-50 in the semifinals.
Shortly after setting the stage for a showdown against Hardin, the Maroons learned that it wouldn't happen.
But perspectives change over time, and getting the opportunity to celebrate with each other and their community was cathartic and perhaps helped settle that lingering question of 'What if?'
"I feel like our guys are understanding of our accomplishments," Kelly said. "I feel at peace with it right now."