BILLINGS — When Billings West girls basketball coach Charlie Johnson wants instant offense — well, instant anything, really — he just looks down the bench for No. 44.
Taylee Chirrick wears that number, and her first appearance in games usually comes alongside three of her teammates. Chirrick, Kourtney Grossman, Sydney Pierce and Ryan Dolan typically enter as a wave in the game’s early stages, and Saturday afternoon that group helped their sputtering teammates turn what was looking to be a rare tight game into another 20-something-point victory for the third-ranked Golden Bears.
Chirrick scored West’s final six points of the first quarter and finished the first half with 14, and the Bears went on to beat No. 5 Bozeman 56-35 at the West gym for their 10th straight victory to open the season.
Chirrick finished with a game-high 21 points and also had team highs in rebounds (6) and steals (5), while Pierce added 14 points. West trailed 8-6, but Chirrick made three baskets in a span of 1:23 to end the first quarter, and by halftime West led 32-16.
The game proved to be all but over.
“Taylee had a couple steals and kind of sparked us,” Johnson said about Chirrick, a 5-foot-10 freshman. “She’s just go, go, go, go, go. I mean, she could probably go play another 32-minute game just like that somewhere. She’s got energy for everyone.”
Gabby Klein scored 11 points and Avery Burkhart had 10 for the Hawks, who dropped to 7-3. Saturday was a better showing than the 34-point loss to West in the season-opener, and Bozeman did make the Bears work a little harder than most teams have.
But coach Erika Gustavsen and the Hawks were wishing to take back the second quarter when the game got away from them and they were outscored 20-6.
“Against a team like this, you can’t dig a hole, right?” Gustavsen said. “I would say you have to keep it in the six- to 12-point range, realistically, to give yourself a chance.”
West has four games remaining in the regular season, and the fact the Bears need to win just one of those to clinch the Eastern AA’s top postseason seed may have seemed unlikely at the beginning of the season.
Yes, West was defending co-state champion (along with Helena Capital) after last season’s state tournaments were canceled for COVID-19 concerns before the title games could be played. But the Bears graduated four starters, and returned just two varsity players with significant playing time: Kaitlin Grossman and Kendell Ellis.
But here the Bears are, one of two unbeatens in Class AA (Missoula Hellgate is the other). Three of their top four scorers are freshmen — Kourtney Grossman (11.1 ppg entering Saturday), Chirrick (10.9) and Pierce (8.0) — and the other is sophomore Layla Baumann (10.0). Aside from the previously mentioned Kaitlin Grossman and Ellis, the rest of the roster is comprised of first-year varsity players.
So the Bears are largely a rookie team, and for a while Saturday, it looked like their rookie moment had arrived.
“With a younger team, you’re probably going to have a letdown a little bit,” Johnson said. “OK, here we go, our ship’s sunk a little bit. But it wasn’t.”
The day wasn’t all roses for the Bears, however. Kourtney Grossman went down with a knee injury in the third quarter and didn’t return. Her knee was heavily wrapped and she was on crutches by game’s end.
Depending on the diagnosis, the Bears’ depth may have taken a hit. Friday night, speaking about West’s 24-point win over Skyview, Bella Murphy might have been a bit prophetic about how her team might handle such a situation.
Murphy was talking about how the Bears, be they freshmen or unseasoned “veterans,” were ready for anything. And that might be the case now.
“It’s not like it’s a seniority thing,” Murphy said as she gestured toward the socially distanced chairs that comprised the Bears’ empty bench following Friday’s win. “If you’re ready to play, you’re gonna play. And I really love that about this team, is that we’re all happy for each other, right? Just as long as we get the outcome that we want.”