MISSOULA — Arguably nobody knows Zanen Pitts on the court better than Jeff Bellach.
And for good reason. Bellach and Pitts both became head coaches at the same time six seasons ago — Pitts for the Arlee Warriors boys basketball team and Bellach the head man at Manhattan Christian.
The two have gone head-to-head 10 times throughout their careers. Statewide, the two programs are known for being the staples of Class C basketball as the Eagles and Warriors have crossed paths in the last three state championship games. Arlee won the first two contests in 2017 and 2018 with Manhattan Christian breaking through for its title in March.
There's a lot of history between the two in the rivalry but a lot of respect and admiration as well. So when Bellach saw that Pitts was not going to be coming back to coach the Warriors, he took to social media to thank his opponent and friend for the history the two programs created.
“It’s a big loss for Arlee. I don’t know all of the ins and outs of the situation with him and the administration and all of that, but personally competing against Zanen and his teams over the past few years and the way that our teams were able to build some friendships through it all and the competition," Bellach told 406mtsports.com on Thursday. "Zanen’s group had a lot of motivation off the court and a lot of influence and they did a lot of great things with the Warrior Movement, so their mission went well beyond basketball and I think ours does too, maybe in a different way."
We were fortunate enough to compete against Coach Zanen Pitts and the Arlee Warriors 9 times in the last 6 years, including 5 straight Div Title games and 3 straight State Title games, only 2 points (592-590) separated the two programs at the end of those 9 meetings....... https://t.co/OvYFyuk0wr— Jeff Bellach (@JBelly10) June 13, 2019
Bellach noted just how often these two teams met in high-stakes games. The coaches met at the divisional in their first years on the job in 2013-14 with Manhattan Christian winning the opener. Neither team made it to state that season.
In the following five seasons, the teams met nine times. The Eagles won the next two games before Arlee won five straight, with the Eagles winning the final two which happened this past season, equaling up to a 5-5 record. Four of their matchups were for divisional titles.
In their final nine meetings, the Eagles outscored the Warriors 592-590, showing just how equal the two squads were when it came to talent.
"The bond between the two teams was fierce and friendly competition and I think it was a cool thing to see and be a part of," Bellach said. "I have a ton of respect for Zanen and his program and what he did there and it’s something that our guys in our program and community will never forget.”
Bellach and many more were quick to offer their thoughts and support on Pitts' decision to leave the team in what is a fractured relationship with administrators with the Arlee School District.
Former superintendent Dave Whitesell offered his thoughts in a comment on the Missoulian's Facebook page.
"Sorry to see you go but I completely understand," Whitesell wrote. "Thank you for all you have done for the Flathead, Arlee, and my son (Greg). The championships were secondary, in my mind, to the real successes you had with every single student-athlete that wore the uniform during your time at Arlee."
Greg Whitesell was featured in a video documentary on NBA TV where he explained how close he once was to committing suicide. Arlee's Warrior Movement, which launched over a year ago, has been geared toward mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
Another parent of a former player, Becky Malatare, tweeted out her thoughts in support of Pitts late Wednesday night shortly after the story was published.
"Thanks Pitts for the memories, sacrifice & passion for the game," she wrote. "Much more than a coach to us," adding a crown emoji to the end of the tweet for good measure. In the post she added a photo of her son Phillip, who led the Warriors on the court to their two state titles, shaking hands with Pitts.
Pitts' departure also attracted attention from out of state, too, because of his involvement with the Warrior Movement. Colleen Creighton, an executive director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington D.C., tweeted that she met him and was sad to see him leave.
"This is so sad," she wrote. "Met Zanen last month when I was out there to honor him and the team & he's such an incredible guy — and such an inspiration and leader for the kids."
The AAS's mission statement is, "To promote the understanding and prevention of suicide and support those who have been affected by it."
As of early Thursday evening, the original story of Pitts resignation was shared from the Missoulian's Facebook page over 120 times and over 300 times on the 406 Sports page. Most comments and shares thanked Pitts for what the Warrior Movement accomplished.
"The Warrior Movement definitely had an impact on our kids and also probably changed the way they looked at the competition against those kids," Bellach added. "It was definitely a period where our kids could learn and grow from their kids. I would like to think that the Arlee kids were able to grow with our kids and some of the relationships that they built.
"Our kids learned a lot about the Arlee kids and the daily struggles that they go through and really admire and respect with how they came out and competed with that passion and also stepped off the floor and tried to make a difference there too. We’ll never forget the rivalry and I really do think we brought out the best in each other. Anytime that happens, you can influence a lot of people. I know Zanen’s got young kids and I think after some time away with some reflection and relaxation, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the fire and urge to get back into coaching after he does some more work with the Warrior Movement. It’s just hard to take the game away from somebody who loves it like he does.”