Arlee Warriors win their first Class C boys basketball championship

The Arlee Warriors celebrate the first state boys' basketball title in school history last March in Bozeman. They won 71-67 over Manhattan Christian.

DEAN HENDRICKSON, For 406mtsports.com

MISSOULA — Arlee head coach Zanen Pitts wanted to make sure early on his team wasn't simply satisfied with last year's Class C state boys' basketball title — the first in program history.

So Pitts sent the Warriors to the line for conditioning in the team's first practice of the season.

"I said 'All right, we're going to condition. I need anybody that can to push themselves... I need to see how tough (you are) and how much you want this,'" Pitts said he told the team. "... Seventeen practiced and 10 of them threw up."

"It's not that they weren't in shape. That just describes the style of these guys' focus."

It could be the empty stomachs, but Arlee definitely seems hungry to repeat its historic run. The Warriors have the players to do it, too.

Although the Warriors graduated four seniors, including four-time all-stater Tyler Tanner, they return a trio of perimeter players that Plains' coach Mike Cole called "great." 

Cole would know. His Horsemen, conference cohorts with the defending state champs, finished 20-4 overall last season and handed Arlee its only loss of the year. The seventh-year skipper, who returns second-team all-conference player Jay VonHeeder, added that the Warriors' fab three certainly make them the favorites in the West — if not the whole state.

Coach Pitts called them his "three-headed monster."

"Phillip (Malatare) is so mature, he is demanding and expecting perfection from (the team); Will (Mesteth), he doesn't say too much, but what he says, everybody listens, he's just dialed in. And Greg Whitesell — those are my three captains," Pitts said. All three were all-conference last year, while seniors Malatare and Mesteth return from all-state junior seasons.

Pitts said it's going to take all 18 members of his team (one missed the vomit-inducing calisthenics) to navigate through a tough Class C, however. His Warriors don't want to overlook anybody, of course, but Pitts already has an odds-on-favorite picked out.

And its not necessarily Manhattan Christian, who the Warriors beat 71-67 in a sold out Class C title game last year.

"I've been daydreaming about Fairview all year," Pitts said. "Fairview is going to be tough, plus they come from Indian schools over there, so they understand the whole dynamic of the real style of ball."

That style of play Pitts mentions is often referred to as reservation basketball. The approach forces tempo with aggressive play, quick scoring and usually involves pressure defense of some sort. It's as frenetic as it is thrilling to watch.

The Arlee coach said teams from the North and East Class C conferences are more used to seeing the upbeat style of play, and it makes the schools on the other side of the Divide extremely prepared come tournament time.

Pitts said both Rocky Boy and Harlem, two teams Arlee will face next week at the Native American Classic in Pablo, are accustomed to the style and should be tough to beat.

Meanwhile, Manhattan Christian isn't necessarily known for its swift play, but last year's runner-up has a demonstrated ability to handle the high-speed attack many teams run.

The Eagles have talent in the back court, too. 

"They bring back three good perimeter players and the rumor is the coach's son has grown another two and a half inches, so he's pushing 6-5 as a two-guard," Plains' Cole said. "If that rumor's true, I expect some big things out of Caleb Bellach from Manhattan Christian."

And Bellach has big expectations for his Eagles.

"We have the potential to go to the state tournament again," the returning all-stater told 406mtsports.com. "I think if we all work together like we’re a family and play hard, it’ll come."

Bellach added his team's dreams of state glory come in a hue of scarlet. 

"Yeah, definitely, I always like playing (Arlee)," said Bellach, who has befriended several players on the Warriors after playing them over the summer.

Elsewhere in Class C, Valley Christian's Zach Baugher is back for the Eagles. The all-state lefty led his team to a perfect 10-0 District 13-C record last season as a sophomore. 

Valier's Colten Curry, a Griz football recruit, is back after an all-state campaign.

Box Elder, which beat Arlee in the 2016 state title game, graduated two all-state players, though the Bears are always expected to compete. They bring in new coach LaVon Myers, too. Hays-Lodgepole, last season's fourth-place finisher, also had an all-state duo graduate.

In the West, Charlo returns an athletic group of kids, including four who were Class C 8-man football all-state players (Toby Odom, Tyson Petticrew, Landers Smith and Brady Fryberger). Darby's Dylan Parks returns with an all-conference award, ready to improve on the Tigers' 12-10 record a season ago.

But they're all chasing Arlee, and just about everybody knows it.

"I'm excited and I'm putting a lot of pressure on them, too," the Warriors coach said. "Last year, I always tried to be quiet with them and not let people know we're coming."

"Aint no point in hiding it now."

Kyle Houghtaling can be reached by email at kyle.houghtaling@missoulian.com or on Twitter @khotel.

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