Loyola SH vs. Eureka girls basketball 03 (copy)

Eureka head coach Ryan Holder yells to his players from the sideline against Loyola on Saturday in each team's season opener. The Lions suffered a 49-37 loss but put a scare into the defending State B co-champs as they chase their first state tournament berth since 2006.

MISSOULA — Eureka coach Ryan Holder is hoping this is the year his girls basketball team can break through and qualify for state even though they need to replace some key players.

The Lions have had regular-season success in Holder’s first three seasons, winning at least a share of the Western 7-B district title each of the previous two years. The one thing they’ve failed to accomplish is making the state tournament, which Eureka hasn't done since 2006.

“We’re trying to make the jump,” Holder said after the Lions put a scare into defending State B co-champ Missoula Loyola on Saturday, which they hope is a sign of things to come. “We haven’t made state in almost 20 years, so we’re not really a basketball school, so we’re trying to change the guard. This group has worked really hard. They’re a fun group to have. I think we’ve got a chance to make some noise this year.”

To do that, Eureka needs to replace all-state player Maggie Graves, first-team all-conference player Megan Hanson and second-team all-conference player Avory Escobar. The Lions will be turning to senior Katie Schmidt to lead the charge because she is their lone returning starter and was a second-team all-conference selection last season. Schmidt had 11 points in the opener.

The Lions bring back three other players with varsity experience in senior Michael Shea and juniors Reena Truman and Jadyn Pluid. They each scored five points against Loyola and will try to find where they fit in as they take on bigger roles.

Holder is also looking for boosts from seniors Kyla Bohne and Rhianna Hawkins, who scored seven and four points. Bohne’s family is from Eureka but was living in Canada until moving this year, Holder said. He also noted that Hawkins didn’t play last year because of a broken ankle.

“We weren’t too concerned with the outcome of the game. It was more to see where we matched up and where we need to get better,” Holder said. “I feel we have more to show offensively. We just got to keep working to get better, be calmer and be more level. I think our girls feel we can compete with Loyola.”

Holder was gathering high hopes for this group during summer games and open gyms, but he noted that a school closure limiting their practices in December left them feeling rusty heading into the season. That fear showed up early when Eureka trailed 11-3 in the first quarter.

The Lions battled back to tie the game by halftime and take a two-point lead in the third quarter. They ultimately lost by 12 points, but the performance left Holder even more optimistic about his team and impressed Loyola coach Travis Walker.

“That Eureka team does a good job,” Walker said. “They’re well coached. They had some skill players that can knock down some shots. They flat brought it there and did a great job.”

Loyola should be the lead dog in the Western B division, returning three starters from last year’s team that went 25-0. Two years ago, Loyola took third at state while Florence placed second, hampering Eureka’s quest for a state berth out of the loaded division.

First, the Lions will have to get out of the Western 7-B district. They will have to get past veteran Thompson Falls, which won a share of the district title last year, and maturing Bigfork, which is coming off a trip to the state tournament last season.

Like every team, Eureka will also have to battle the coronavirus. Holder’s message to the team has been to approach every game like it’s their last because the pandemic can shut down the season at a moment’s notice.

“I think basketball is very good for them during a time like this and not keeping them cooped up, so I’m very hopeful we can keep it going because it is really good for the girls,” Holder said. “They’ve had great attitudes through it all. I’m hopeful, but you never know with this stuff.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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