BUTTE — If nothing else, the Heart Butte (Road) Warriors have been introduced to an essential life skill.

“They’re learning how to do their own laundry,” Athletic Director Ross Drishinski noted this week. 

Their basketball lives scattered hither and yon by paralyzing wind and snow on the Blackfeet Reservation, 12 Heart Butte players, two alternates and a couple of student managers have been holed up with their coaches in motel rooms for all but one night since Feb. 10.

The Heart Butte girls’ team was in the same boat until Monday. School superintendent Lee Folley lauded the bus driver who brought the girls home through the drifts from Great Falls during a lull in the storm after playing in the Northern C divisional in Great Falls last week.

Meanwhile, the boys’ team settled into its fourth motel in 15 days, this one in Butte.

There, on Thursday night, Coach Kellen Hall’s Warriors will take on powerhouse Manhattan Christian in the first round of the Class C boys’ state basketball tournament at the Butte Civic Center.

It’s a tournament of heavyweights from Montana’s smallest schools. Defending champion Arlee from the Flathead Reservation and Eastern C champion Scobey are on the other side of the bracket, two of three unbeaten teams in the field. Heart Butte, at 24-0, is the third.

The Warriors are a balanced team led by seniors Shylon Spoonhunter, Anthony Aimsback, Charlie Tailfeathers and Isaiah Arrowtop, along with sophomore Riley Spoonhunter. They won the District 10-C while stranded for a week in Shelby, and their first Northern C title in a dozen years in Great Falls.

“We just keep on movin’ on,” Hall said Tuesday morning. “The kids are staying hungry, knowing what kind of obstacles they’re facing. They just keep their eyes on the prize.”

It was sunny, calm and 5 degrees below zero in the Mining City, on its way to a forecast high Tuesday of 26 and above-freezing temperatures later in the week.

Back at home, drifting snow whipped by winds reaching upwards of 60 mph once again choked off access to the tiny, service-less town, the heart of traditional Blackfeet country. 

It's a life-threatening mess, and later in the day Gov. Steve Bullock issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency on the Blackfeet Reservation and in Glacier County, along with the Fort Belknap, and Northern Cheyenne reservations and Golden Valley County.

“These kids are all very family-oriented. That would be the hardest part, being away from family,” Hall said. “Those home-cooked meals are being missed, just that quality time with family is being missed."

He knows. Hall grew up between Browning and Heart Butte, and played on two state championship basketball teams for Browning in 2001 and 2002. He was a 6-foot-2 all-stater as a senior in 2003. Now in his second season coaching at Heart Butte, Hall has a decade of experience at various levels, most of them in Browning.

Just as practice began in Heart Butte in November, Hall lost his mother, Olivia Davis-Hall, who died in a Great Falls hospital.

“That’s been pretty tough on me, but this is also something that keeps me busy,” he said. “These boys helped me a lot to get through that, and still are.”

It was just the first tragedy to hit the town and team.

In December word came that 22-year-old Clarence McNabb, a former Heart Butte basketball player, was missing in the oilfields of North Dakota. His body was eventually found outside Williston. Authorities said foul play was not suspected.

McNabb was Anthony Aimsback's cousin.

“Really he was like his brother,” said Hall, who coached McNabb to middle-school tournament titles while at Browning.

“He was a very good kid. He brought a lot of joy to my life, and I always kind of hoped I did the same to him,” Hall said. “His mother’s having a tough time right now, but she’s also supporting us well.”

McNabb was “super ecstatic” when the Warriors went on a run last season that ended with a third-place finish at divisionals.

“I’m sure he’d be the same this year,” said Hall.

Early on the morning of Jan. 16 another former Warriors hoops standout, 20-year-old Eljaye Young Running Crane, was struck by a car and killed while walking along Heart Butte Road. Young Running Crane was an uncle to two boys on the current team, Cody Aimsback and Jamison Young Running Crane.

“He was a kid doing good with his life,” said Hall. “He went to the (National Guard’s Montana Youth Challenge Academy) and had a lot of good things ahead of him.”

Young Running Crane attained the rank of battalion commander at the academy. It's the highest leadership position a cadet can achieve, according to the Great Falls Tribune, which reported last month on still-unresolved questions surrounding Young Running Crane's death.

“I would say the hardest part of all this would be the loss of family members,” Drishinski, the athletic director, said. "You look at the last two weeks when they’ve been on the road and, yeah, that’s a nuisance, bothersome, and it’s a pain in the derriere. But it’s not life altering. When you lose somebody you love and care about, that’s life altering.”

Hall and assistant coaches AJ St. Goddard and Maurice St. Goddard preach a mantra: The quickest way to beat adversity is to have a “destination through the devastation.”

Their lot has been embraced by outsiders along the way.

Great Falls Central, a District 10-C rival, opened its gym for the Warriors to practice in last week.

“They even gave us basketballs to bring along on this trip” to Butte, Hall said.

The manager of the Crystal Inn, the Great Falls hotel that Heart Butte teams prefer to stay at, attended their games at the divisionals to cheer them on.

“She’s a very kind lady,” the coach said.

Ed Greiberis and his wife Patricia were at the hotel on business last week. Greiberis works for the Disaster and Emergency Services Division at Fort Harrison, and he’d read about the plights of Heart Butte and its basketball teams. He and Patricia felt compelled to help out.

“I joke around with my wife all the time. I carry an emergency hundo (hundred dollars) and she’s always giving me crap about it. But I got to talking to the coach and I’m thinking to myself, this is what emergency cash is for,” Greiberis said.

He “bumped it up to a couple of hundo,” and provided the Heart Butte contingent with meals for the day.

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It was an appreciated gesture. 

"It has been costly for us to try and keep this thing going, with the school and whatnot," Hall said. 

“It’s important for those kids to know there are good people out there that truly care, and there’s a lot of us,” Greiberis said.

Drishinski arrived in Butte in advance of the team on Monday to take care of accommodations and arrange a practice facility.

Butte Central athletic director Chad Petersen offered the Maroon Activities Center for the latter.

“He’s been very generous to us,” Hall said. “He’s even given us access to their athletic trainer. They’ve been more than grateful.”

Hall admits it’s not easy to keep track of a group of teenage boys who’ve been living out of suitcases for so long.

On down days, they’ve gone to movies together. Some of the boys have stayed with their families who’ve made it out of the Heart Butte country for the tournaments.

Usually Hall doesn’t allow video games on road trips, “but we’ve actually gotten hold of a couple now,” he said. “It’s one way we could bring them together.”

Hall chuckled when he added a kicker: He’s undefeated for the road trip in NBA 2K on PlayStation 4.

Through every curve Montana’s winter has thrown at them, his basketball team keeps winning too.

“Give credit to the players and the coaches,” Drishinski said. “That’s all on them. The players are taking it in stride. They’ve been well behaved and acting as young gentlemen should, and the coaches have been keeping them on task.”

Heart Butte was the last Class C boys’ team to win back-to-back state championships. That was in Butte in 2000 and in Billings in 2001, during the “Mike Chavez era.” Chavez, who played college ball for the Montana Grizzlies, transferred to Browning for his senior season. He led the Indians to their second consecutive State A title in 2002, Hall’s junior year.

Heart Butte made it back to the championship game in 2002, also in Butte, without Chavez. The Warriors have returned to state just once since, in 2006, when they went 0-2 in Billings.

The 2018 team will make it home from their epic road trip “whenever Montana allows,” Hall said.

The plan is to make up more than two weeks of lost school days with nine-hour days and maybe a vacation day or two, Hall said.

“We usually do a parade around town, then we have a pep rally in the gym and the whole community comes in and everybody gives a little talk,” he said.

Win or lose in Butte, there’ll be time to celebrate in Blackfeet Nation when the Blizzard of ’18 and the winter of heartache are finally over.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian