BUTTE — Luke Heaphy was enjoying a celebratory atmosphere at dinner in Billings on Friday evening as a jubilant Butte Central boys basketball team reveled in their State A semifinal victory over Browning.
Heaphy, one of nine Central seniors looking to end their high school basketball careers at the summit, and the Maroons were less than 24 hours away from taking on Class A powerhouse Hardin in the championship game and one win from delivering Central its first state title since 1992.
Then Heaphy received a peculiar text message. It read: “Congrats on a great season.”
Those five words and their underlying sense of finality perplexed him. Great season? Didn’t they still have one final game to play?
Looking to resolve his confusion, Heaphy took a glance at a suddenly turbulent social media scene and came across a letter from the MHSA announcing that, due to four presumptive cases of Coronavirus being detected in Montana, Saturday's eight state championship games had been called off.
Within a span of about two hours, Heaphy and the Maroons went from euphoria at reaching the title game in a run that had seem them knock off defending champion Billings Central in the opening round to stunned disbelief that it would never be. From the summit to the valley.
"We're all just kind of shocked that our careers are over," Heaphy said on Saturday from a somber team bus that had departed Billings far sooner than he or any of his teammates had envisioned and following a cancellation that they were still trying to wrap their minds around. "It was a roller coaster. All that excitement of getting to play in from of a full crowd and to find out that's never going to happen."
Instead of getting to take on Hardin with a championship on the line, the Maroons were forced to settle with being declared co-champions with the Bulldogs. Instead of getting a shot at ending a nearly three-decade title drought, Central is now left wondering what could have been.
Braden Harrington, who scored 14 points in what would turn out to be his final high school basketball game, had an understandably emotional reaction when he learned that his final season with Butte Central would end with a cliffhanger.
"I kind of lost it," Harrington said. "To find out that my high school career was over and it was just taken away as fast as you could blink. I was at a loss for words."
Central head coach Brodie Kelly held a meeting with his players on Saturday morning in their hotel lobby in which he tried to help his team cope with having an opportunity to play in a championship game vanish. This wasn't the way he had anticipated saying goodbye to his seniors.
"It's hard to fathom. They worked their tails off this season and their whole high school careers," Kelly said. "They earned it and deserved it and it was taken from them. We didn't fail to meet our goal, we just didn't have the opportunity to meet it."
Kelly learned about the cancellations at dinner along with his players first from Twitter updates, then the MHSA letter, then confirmation from Central's activities director, Chad Petersen.
"Even then I thought 'this can't be,'" he said. "It just snowballed so fast."
He settled into an uneasy sleep Friday night still holding out a glimmer of hope that the title game could still unfold without spectators.
"It was pretty surreal and really hard to come to grips with what was going on," Kelly said. "I just didn't want to face the reality. I was holding out maybe naive hope that we could play this game today somehow, someway with restricted attendance."
Though the shock of seeing their season come to such an abrupt end is still fresh and will certainly linger, Harrington was able to see the positives in what he and his team had accomplished to reach this point.
"We did everything in our power to control what we could," Harrington said. "There's nothing else that we could do."