MISSOULA — Montana natives Ryan Dick and J.R. Camel were part of Missoula Hellgate's basketball team that went undefeated to win the 1993 state title.
They were also teammates on a Griz basketball team that started five Montanans in the 1997 NCAA tournament against Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team.
“I’m still surprised how many people remember what we accomplished at Hellgate, and more people ask about that state championship team in 1993 than the game against Kentucky,” Dick said this week. “High school was a special time because you’re playing with your friends and in front of your friends.”
The 1992-93 team will be back at Hellgate for the 25-year anniversary of their title when the Knights open the season at 5:45 p.m. Friday against Billings West. Coincidentally, Hellgate played West in the 1993 state title game, needing double overtime to pull out the win in a game that featured four future Division I athletes.
Coached by Eric Hays, Hellgate went 23-0 to become the first Class AA team since 1969 and the third team in 37 years of Class AA basketball to go undefeated and win the state title.
The Knights had three future Grizzlies with Dick, Camel and Jake Dennehy, who went on to play safety for the football team. They had their challenging times, but they won by an average of 24.4 points per contest, with just two outcomes decided by single digits.
“What made it so special was the players,” Hays said. “They were a great group to be around. They enjoyed each other. They played basketball the way it was supposed to be played. They didn’t strut around. They were good and talented but also very humble.”
Over the hump
The Knights had high expectations coming into the 1993 season, the 16th season with Hays at the helm. Then they had a present dropped in their lap when Camel transferred from St. Ignatius for his senior season.
“I always talked to Ryan Dick at track meets, and he’d tell me I should transfer,” Camel recalled. “I transferred at the end of my junior year, and the whole summer before, we went to team camps. We dominated, and I thought we could be good.”
Camel, a 6-foot-1 guard, went on to lead the Western AA with 19 points per game, while Dick, a 6-foot-6 center, averaged 17.3 points. The two of them made for a potent dunking duo in Hellgate’s man-to-man pressure defense that produced fast break opportunities.
Dennehy, a 6-foot forward averaging 15 points, had transferred from Dillon the season before when his dad, Mick Dennehy, got a coaching job with the Griz football team. Rounding out the all-senior starting five were point guard Jordan Lind and forward Tom Harrington, a versatile defender.
“JR was the team in St. Ignatius and gave that up to join our team,” Lind said. “There were early struggles with how to play in a system, but we only needed a few games. It was an amazing testament. He’s the single best athlete I’ve ever stepped on a court with.”
Sean Hogan was the team’s sixth man and the quarterback for the football team. The rest of the roster included Adam Close, Jeb Davis, John Northey, Mike Wheeler, Jason Helms, Rob Sheridan and Mike Reed.
“We could play fast, play slow, were great on defense. It was a very talented group to be around,” Hays said.
“Pretty much everybody could score,” Dennehy added, “but we had guys sacrifice some things for the better of the team.”
The Knights, who didn’t talk about going undefeated at the start of the season, came close to losing in their second game. They trailed 47-40 heading to the fourth quarter and rallied to pull out a six-point win against a Great Falls CMR team that featured future NFL player Ryan Leaf.
“I hadn’t met Ryan Leaf before, but we were in the athletic training room before the game, and he had this confidence,” Dick said. “He and I were getting our ankles taped, and he told me every school in the country was recruiting him for football but he wanted to play basketball. I was like, ‘This guy is a confident fella.’”
Hellgate picked up two wins against a Butte team led by future Grizzly Bob Olson, including a road victory that Camel missed with an illness as the Knights moved to 12-0.
The Knights also earned two victories against a Helena High team that had future Bobcat Danny Sprinkle and a Missoula Big Sky squad that boasted future Grizzly football and basketball player Nate Sil.
“The second time we played Helena, they were the second-best team on our side of the state, and they thought they had us figured out,” Hays said. “Our guys were mentally ready. We were playing at a level that high school teams just don’t play at.”
As Hellgate moved to 18-0, another team on the other side of the state had its eyes on an undefeated season.
Dash to Dahlberg
Hellgate and Billings West were both 18-0 heading into their clash in Missoula. The Golden Bears were ranked No. 1 in the state and on a 20-game winning streak going back to the previous season, while the Knights were No. 2.
The Feb. 19 game was the latest in the season that two undefeated Class AA teams had played each other. To suit the event, the game was moved from Hellgate’s 1,800-seat gym to Dahlberg Arena, home of the Montana Grizzlies, making it the first regular-season high school basketball game there in 13 years.
“I remember the sports director at KPAX came to me and asked if we could move the game from Hellgate to the fieldhouse since the Griz and Lady Griz were out of town,” Hays said. “I told him we probably couldn’t afford to rent it. He said if KPAX rents it would you like to play there, and we said yeah.”
Hellgate and West were playing for the undefeated record since they both had locked up their respective conference titles and No. 1 seed for state.
The crowd was slow-arriving, but by the tip-off time, all the bleachers had been pulled out. The announced attendance was 7,200 for the nonconference regular-season game.
“That fieldhouse was incredibly packed,” Harrington said. “It was an electric environment. We got to play in front of our home crowd, many who didn’t go to state, so that’s the game that gets talked about around town more than state at the Metra.”
Lind added: “It was the most electric environment I’ve ever been in as a player. It was one of the greatest individual performances I’ve ever seen from JR Camel, playing within the system. The atmosphere was unbelievable. It was something I’ve never repeated in my life in terms of being part of something.”
Camel, who dealt with the flu leading up to the game, exploded for 31 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three dunks in an 82-71 win. Dick chipped in 20 points, and Dennehy added 17 for the Knights, who built a double-digit lead in the first half and led by five or more the rest of the way.
“I remember it was the best performance I ever saw J.R. Camel play,” Dick said. “I played with him in college for five years, but the way he played that night was special. He just seemed to be in a really comfortable groove.”
Added Hays: “J.R. had the quickest hands I’ve seen on a basketball player. He had athleticism, had a good motor and was relentless defensively. He created steals, and everybody fed off it.”
“I’ll forever remember that game,” Camel said. “I have so many people come up and say they were at that game. Then we went to Billings, and that was a classic ending.”
Stating their case
In the 1987-88 season, Hays’ Knights were undefeated heading into the state title game but lost. In March 1993, they again entered undefeated after beating Billings Skyview in the quarterfinals and a Great Falls High team headlined by future Grizzly Mike Warhank in the semifinals.
That set up a state championship game on March 6 between Hellgate and West that featured four soon-to-be Division I athletes, the fourth being Billings West center Dan Sullivan, a future Bobcat. They played at the Billings Metra in front of 7,091 fans, including approximately 400 of Hellgate’s 1,500 students who called into school as absent.
“We were underdogs from the crowd perspective, and it felt like us against the world,” Lind said.
“I remember being visited by kids from Billings Senior that were supporting Hellgate,” Dick recalled. “Without question, people were engaged. There was a screech from the opening tip that didn’t end through two regulations and overtimes.”
The Knights struggled to execute their defense and trailed 32-25 at the half, their largest halftime deficit of the season. They clawed back, went on a 9-0 run in the third quarter and never trailed after that.
With the score tied in the final seconds of regulation, West guard Mike Hayter, a future Willamette University basketball player, stripped Camel and raced down the court for a potential game winner. Harrington and Lind, who had broken his nose the week before and re-broke it during the game, chased after and combined to force a game-saving turnover.
“Hays said a lot of people will remember the dunks and high scoring,” Lind said, “but to him, what we stood for as a team was captured in that moment because guys like Tom and I are less athletic and not stars from the perspective of high flying and dunking.”
After West made a contested 3-pointer in double overtime, Dennehy sank two free throws with five seconds left to make the final margin 71-68. He finished with 20 points and was named the state tournament MVP.
“Losing wasn’t an option,” Dennehy said. “We were lucky enough to find a way to dig deep. It was an incredible season, and that game was a culmination of the hard work.”
Added Dick: “When I think about Jake, I think of a kid who always stepped up in a big situation. He certainly did that night.”
The win was Hays' third state title since 1985. West finished the season 20-3 with two losses to Hellgate.
After the trophy presentation and the nets were cut, Camel and Dick put on a dunking exhibition for the remaining fans.
Dick’s future wife was at the game as a cheerleader for Billings West. They didn’t know each other at the time but met at the University of Montana and started dating as juniors.
25 years later
Hellgate will recognize the 1993 team during halftime of Friday’s game. About 10 players and coaches from that team are expected to be in attendance.
“I wake up every morning thinking coach Hays and that team had a major impact in terms of who I am,” Lind said. “When people ask why I do things a certain way, I say, ‘Why not?’ We took a ‘Why not’ approach and didn’t focus on the wins and losses. We focused on the things that lead to wins and losses.”
Current Hellgate coach Jeff Hays, the son of Eric Hays, was in fourth grade when the Knights won the 1993 title, helping out by keeping track of players’ minutes played.
“Fourth grade, those are your peak childhood hero years, and those guys were that for me,” Jeff Hays said.
Now at the helm, Hays’ Knights are expected to be one of the top contenders for the state title.
Hellgate returns three starters and seven letter winners, including Griz basketball commit Rollie Worster, Bridger Deden, Dylan Holst (son of former Griz basketball coach Don Holst) and Abe Johnson. Some players have been battling a stomach bug, but Hays sounded hopeful everyone would be available Friday.
The Knights will kick off their campaign against Billings West, which has strong guard play from Jesse Owens and Cade Tyson but lacks height in the post.
“We have to be able to contain their backcourt,” Hays said. “We can't let them drive in the lane. Offensively, taking care of the basketball is going to be critical. We’ll need to use our size to our advantage.”