BILLINGS — It turns out Miles City will have new boys basketball coach, just not the new coach everyone thought it would be.

Joel Larson has been hired as the next head boys basketball coach at Custer County District High School. The hiring is pending school board approval according to a press release issued Wednesday by Miles City activities director Kyle Dunfee.

Luke Powers had previously been announced as the coach in May, but according to the press release Powers decided to not take the position on Tuesday.

Powers has been offered the position of boys basketball coach at Belgrade, pending school board approval according to Panthers AD Rick Phillips.

“Luke is really excited to be here and we are excited to have him,” said Phillips.

Dunfee said that he was surprised when Powers resigned on Tuesday. He said Powers was presented an opportunity to be closer to his young daughter in Butte with the Belgrade job.

“I won’t lie to you, the community is definitely upset, no doubt about it,” he said. “They feel let down, but as far as an activities director goes, Luke has to do what he has to do and I support Luke and his family endeavors.

“We’ll be stronger in the end and will turn it into a positive and our kids will benefit from the coaching staff we have in place and I’m excited about that.”

When contacted by 406mtsports.com, Powers confirmed the news, saying he has a 2-year-old daughter, Hayden Jane, who lives in Butte. In the end, the shorter travel distance between Butte and Belgrade compared to between Butte and Miles City was the deciding factor, Powers said.

"It's a good opportunity for me. I'm tickled pink," Powers said. "I get to coach and I get to be right next to my daughter. If something ever happens, I'm less than an hour away."

Powers, who didn't coach this past season after a four-year run in Butte ended in 2019, explained that for the past year he was teaching adult education at the state prison in Deer Lodge. 

"That job (in Belgrade) opened up right around the time the Miles City one opened," Powers said. "I obviously wanted to get back into coaching and teaching. I was working at the state prison. That isn't my cup of tea. I like working with kids. The (Belgrade) job opened and I applied. I didn't hear from them for three weeks and I figured they had hired from within. So, I had every intention of going to Miles City." 

After accepting the Miles City job, Powers said he was offered the job to interview in Belgrade over the weekend. He said he told Miles City officials about the interview, as "I wanted to do the right thing by them."

"The people in Miles City were so nice and welcoming," he said. "I was so excited to go. But this was hard to pass up to not have to leave her (his daughter)."

Dunfee said Larson was the second choice of the interview committee when they decided on Powers.

“The time frame where we are at in the year, and also we just don’t feel like we will get the applicant we are looking for without having the teaching position at the high school with the coaching job,” Dunfee said. “When we have a candidate like Joel that is ready to go, we felt it was the most prudent move we can make.”

Larson is a native of Miles City and played basketball at Miles City Sacred Heart High School from 1985-86, before transferring to Custer County in 1986-87 when Sacred Heart closed, he said. Larson played for the Cowboys his final three seasons.

Larson was a member of the 1988 State A championship team and played college basketball at Miles Community College from 1990-92.

According to the release, Larson has served as both a middle school head basketball coach and assistant high school coach. He was an assistant on the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Miles City staffs.

When reached by 406mtsports.com, Larson said he is ready to lead the Cowboys. Although he wasn’t the first choice of the search committee, he views that as a “blessing in disguise.”

“I was shocked to hear that coach Powers wasn’t going to be the coach,” Larson said. “I was obviously very supportive of that (Powers being the coach). I wanted what was best for the program and I trusted the people and the process and they thought coach Powers was the best option at that time. I am hoping that this is a blessing in disguise. I don’t take it any other way, but as a great opportunity from the beginning, just as if I was chosen as the head coach.”

Larson, who owns Miles City Insurance Services, said he received the call Tuesday afternoon offering him the position. After visiting with his family, he accepted the job Tuesday night.

“I had actually moved on and I told Kyle Dunfee that,” he said. “I was at a loss for words. I had to check the calendar and make sure it wasn’t April Fools. I was shocked, but humbled at the same time, and grateful for the opportunity.”

Houston Finn was the boys basketball coach for Miles City last year and resigned after nine years at the end of March, Dunfee said.

While students practiced distance learning for the rest of the semester after the public schools were closed by the governor due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dunfee said student-athletes received the approval during the second week of May to once again use the school’s facilities for athletic training purposes.

With student-athletes once again working out, Miles City school officials were eager to have the boys basketball team under leadership.

“It is definitely unusual and not something as an activities director you want to deal with, especially when you are getting your kids ready for summer programs,” Dunfee said of the back-to-back coaching transactions. “We have our football and volleyball and our girls basketball programs doing some summer offseason lifting and conditioning and skill work. They are back in the facilities and we want to get our basketball players on the boys’ side going as well.”

Larson said he is ready to get started.

“My goal is to No. 1, I want to get to know the kids and build a trust between them and I and get us to a point where the kids are accountable to each other and play for each other and they buy into the program that we are going to put together for them,” he said. “I certainly want them to be better kids and better people just by being part of our program as much as I want them to be good basketball players.

“It will take some time, but we plan on taking this summer to start the process. If we can build a culture that turns into a successful one that is my ultimate goal.”

Powers, a 2002 graduate of Butte High, last coached the Butte Bulldogs and resigned in March, 2019, after four years leading the team. His record at Butte was 21-62, but earlier reports in 406mtsports.com said “the number of players out for basketball increased each year.”

In May, the Belgrade News reported that Mike Deming resigned as the Belgrade boys basketball coach after leading the team for more than a decade. In their first year playing at the Class AA level, the Panthers were 2-18.

"I'm thrilled. I am excited to and think it's a great challenge," said Powers of coaching at Belgrade. "They have some talent coming and were really young last year. It was a tough time going into the AA.

"Being in the Eastern AA is a great challenge and Belgrade just moved up to AA and you can build it. It will be a challenge and I'm really excited to be a part of that school district."

Email Gazette Deputy Sports Editor John Letasky at john.letasky@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL

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