The 2016-17 Missoula Sentinel girls’ basketball team was the ultimate embodiment of the strain it takes in search of a state title.

Injury and untimely illness proved to be just too much for a talented squad that settled for second after falling to Helena 46-41 in the title game last Saturday in Great Falls.

“I think the thing that you kind of realize is that lots of things can happen and you can still be successful and you can fight through adversity as a team and really come together at the end,” Sentinel coach Karen Deden said.

“But sometimes it just still doesn’t work out.”

And sometimes, it just doesn’t seem fair.

The Spartans don’t know if it was the flu or food poisoning but Saturday morning one of Deden’s starting guards, Emma Blakely, said she didn’t feel well. Just hours before the state title game she was in the hospital trying to recoup lost fluids.

Then all-state forward Kylie Frohlich got sick before the game and she could hardly go. Other players complained of symptoms at halftime, and the Spartans, who had endured season-ending injuries to three instrumental players at separate stages of the season, were again fighting their own bodies.

This time, though, in the middle of the state championship game.

“…Every single one of those kids that played in that championship game worked their butts off," Deden said. "I’m not saying anything (negative) about Helena High, Helena High’s a good team, but I just feel the way we were playing in the first two games (at state), that a healthy team, we win that game Saturday night.

“... We’ll all get our flu shots and have catered meals next year,” Deden later deadpanned.

It’s a freak illness, an unfortunate injury or even – more positively – a hot hand or the occasional dynasty (think the Belt girls) that can lay waiting to strike at just the right – or wrong – time.

It’s what makes winning it all that much more special.

***

The Arlee boys have waited a long time for that feeling. Now that the Class C state title is theirs – for the first time in school history – they’re not ready to step out of the glow.

“It hasn’t even begun. They’re getting Pendleton coats, they’re getting rings. The tribal complex is having them come up there on Tuesday; it’s been nuts man,” Arlee coach Zanen Pitts said of the rock star treatment.

“…You know how hard it is to win? It took us 100 years to win it.”

That made a late-game moment last Saturday even more memorable for the Warriors.

Arlee clung to a 47-46 lead with 2 minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Warriors opted to hold the ball and let the clock run out on the frame to recoup strength and maybe mess with Manhattan Christian’s psyche a little bit.

“I prepared my boys that the crowd would probably boo,” Pitts said of the presumed response to the tactic.

But the nearly packed house at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman loved it.

“When the crowd didn’t boo, and they started to cheer, it was like, dude, it’s over,” Pitts said. “We hold the keys now. We have the tempo, we have the momentum, we carry all the power as long as we’re smart.”

The Warriors went on to win 71-67. A hero’s welcome awaited the champions when they returned to the small Flathead Reservation town.

***

Some on the Arlee Scarlets may have been among the waiting crowd. Arlee’s girls’ basketball team just a week earlier nearly gave the town two titles to celebrate.

Instead Class C powerhouse Belt lifted its fifth state championship trophy in six years.

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, coach Bill Stockton wanted to remind his girls about all of the good that got them there in the first place.

“We just talked about how amazing it was to get the opportunity to play in that game and in that situation. It’s once in a lifetime that we’re going to be with those girls in that gym on that night,” Stockton said. “Just embrace that moment, enjoy that time with their friends and family.”

The Scarlets’ run to get to the title game almost makes the end result secondary.

They lost their first three games of the season and sat at 3-4 before a 15-game winning streak that only ended in the Western C Divisional championship game. They bought into a defensive-minded philosophy and gelled as a team, Stockton said.

And in the end, it meant the Scarlets’ first title-game appearance in 37 years. The final result may have been bitter, but the ride sure was sweet.

***

As far as sweet rides go, the Missoula Hellgate swim teams may be on the biggest wave of them all. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams won their fourth straight titles. They set five state records in the six relay races and had seven champions in individual events (five on the girls’ side).

“It was an honor to be able to be on this four-year streak,” said senior Cale Berkoff, who added the 100-yard butterfly to his relay victories. “I didn’t expect to care this much about it to be honest, but I really do.”

As, no doubt, did the 10 wrestlers from Western Montana who claimed an individual title. Their stories litter the mat.

Be it Hamilton senior Manny Rivera, who plans to enroll in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduation, passing his own personal test by winning his first ever Class A individual wrestling title at 182 pounds.

Or Missoula Sentinel’s Bryar Newbary overcoming a gruesome shoulder injury to win state after drawing inspiration from his mom’s fight with breast cancer. The winter preps season was one to remember in Western Montana.

And though the sting of defeat can bite hard, that heartache is fleeting.

It’s the lessons – how to carry yourself after a win, how to handle the losses and just how hard you have to work to succeed – that will stick with these high school athletes long after this winter season has passed.

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