MISSOULA — There was much to celebrate for Missoula-area high school sports teams this winter.
Many accomplished great things, although the two most-decorated teams experienced bittersweet endings in their quest for undisputed state titles when tournaments were canceled because of the coronavirus.
The Hellgate boys basketball team and the Loyola Sacred Heart girls basketball team were each crowned co-champs of their respective class. The Knights went 23-0 to win their first State AA title since 2013, and Loyola went 25-0 to win their second-ever State B championship, the other coming in 2006.
The title is the second for 10th-year Hellgate head coach Jeff Hays — one behind his father, Eric Hays, who had three in 25 seasons with the Knights. Loyola coach Travis Walker, a former Montana Grizzly wide receiver, won his first title in just his third season as the Breakers navigated multiple injuries to key players.
For the Knights, Hellgate senior Rollie Worster, a Utah State commit, moved up the school’s all-time list while playing alongside Army commit Abe Johnson and potential Frontier Conference player Cam LaRance, who all made a fearsome trio. Worster passed Oregon State senior Tres Tinkle to become the all-time leading scorer at Hellgate and moved up to second in assists and third in rebounds, passing Jeff Hays in those last two categories.
The Missoula Sentinel girls basketball team experienced its own euphoria when it qualified for the State AA tournament after having its streak of 16 consecutive appearances snapped last season. Led by Montana State signee Lexi Deden, the Spartans made it to the state semifinals.
The Hellgate girls also made it to the semifinals in their return to state after a breakout 2019 season. They should again be a favorite next season with a team that'll be largely comprised of juniors.
The Corvallis girls made history by qualifying for the State A tournament for just the second time in school history. The Blue Devils were competitive in their games despite going 0-2.
Other Missoula-area teams put together impressive turnarounds with first-year head coaches who made their marks in getting their teams to state.
The senior-heavy Frenchtown boys made it to the State A tournament and even won a loser-out game under first-year head coach Brandon Robbins. The Broncs beat Polson, which had qualified for state for the first time since 2017.
The Hamilton girls made it to the State A tournament under new coach Richard Griffin and could be back in the coming years with a pair of standout freshmen helping the way.
The Arlee boys made a Cinderella run to qualify for the State B tournament after bringing in new head coach Zachary Conko-Camel, graduating four starters, moving up from Class C to Class B, going 0-8 in conference play and needing to win a play-in game just to make the postseason.
The Bigfork girls advanced to the State B tournament under new head coach Cortnee Gunlock in a successful first year, knocking off Thompson Falls to qualify.
The Seeley-Swan girls also pulled off postseason upsets to make a State C appearance under first-year head coach David Cahoon. The Blackhawks will return six of their eight regulars and will be a favorite in the Western 13-C as they try to win their third consecutive conference title.
The Sentinel boys also made it to state despite not winning a game there, but the junior-heavy team showed its future potential. The Spartans should be one of the favorites to win the State AA title next season with a group featuring Division I recruit Alex Germer, Tony Frohlich-Fair, Hayden Kolb and others.
Other teams experienced their own forms of success despite missing out on state.
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The Thompson Falls girls won their first regular-season conference title since October 1984 by capturing the Western 7-B title under first-year head coach Chadd Laws. The Blue Hawks’ 19 wins are their most since 2003 and exceeded the 15 wins they totaled over the past four years as they came within one win of qualifying for state for the first time since 2003.
The Big Sky boys basketball team turned around its slow start under first-year head coach Ryan Hansen to come within one win of qualifying for state. Kade Olson played through a torn labrum in his shooting shoulder, while Ben Maehl and Everett Fred also keyed the turnaround.
Despite the Charlo girls basketball team getting upset at divisionals, the Vikings won their first outright conference title since 2011 by going undefeated in the Western 14-C.
The Eureka boys won their first district tournament title since 2003 by winning the 7-B.
The Plains boys captured their first outright conference title since 2009 by winning the Western 14-C regular-season championship.
The Bigfork boys basketball team won its 11th consecutive Western 7-B regular-season title, doing so this time under first-year head coach John Hollow.
In February, Big Sky captured two individual State AA titles. Junior Hunter Meinzen won his second consecutive title — 152 pounds in 2020 and 145 in 2019 — after taking second place as a freshman at 138. Senior Bridger Hall finally broke through with his first crown, at 170 pounds, after he transferred from Hellgate for his last season.
Meinzen became the first wrestler from a Missoula city school to win multiple titles in a row since 2013-15, when Big Sky’s Luke Entzel won three in a row. Coupled with Hall winning, it’s the first time Missoula city schools have had two champs since 2014, when Entzel and Sentinel’s Jaydn Wilson won. It’s also the first time Big Sky had two champs since 2013, when Entzel and Jon Conklin won.
St. Ignatius senior Isaiah Allik won the State B/C 170-pound title with a 42-0 record, becoming the school’s first champ since 2014, when Jacen Petersen won at 170.
Eureka senior Nathan Schmidt finally broke through by winning the State B/C 138-pound title after placing second each of the past two years and fifth as a freshman. Senior Hank Dunn won the 152-pound title after placing third, second and fourth in his first three years. Junior Gunnar Smith won his third consecutive title, adding a 126-pound championship to his wins at 120 and 113 the last two years.
Frenchtown senior Walker Dyer repeated as the Class A 113-pound state champion. Senior Jake Bibler came up just short in his quest for a four-peat but showed great fight while wrestling through a dislocated collarbone. He’s just the fourth three-time champ in school history. Teammate Landen Stewart went undefeated all the way until the 103-pound championship match and is sure to have ample motivation coming back for his senior season.
Hamilton senior Bridger Williams finally made it to the title match, taking second in State A at 160 pounds, after coming so close in previous years and overcoming a turbulent offseason in which he almost had to have a leg amputated.
Thompson Falls sophomore Trae Thilmony rebounded from an offseason back injury to win the State B/C 120-pound title after taking third as a freshman.
Big Sky freshman Izzy Moreno displayed a never-quit attitude in taking fifth place in State AA at 120 pounds while battling Type 1 diabetes.
In the pool, Bigfork swimmer Sophi Logue became the school’s first-ever girls state champion by winning the 100 fly in February. She was also part of the 400 free relay team that placed third.
While the Hellgate boys and girls saw their streak of six consecutive team state titles end, they’re working their way back to greatness under first-year head coach Morgan Zimmer, a Havre native.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
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