Arlee's Phillip Malatare hangs in the air before shooting against Manhattan Christian. (RICHIE MELBY/MTN Sports)

Jeff Bellach knew his Manhattan Christian team wasn’t satisfied with a second-place finish at the Class C state tournament in March. He knew it the moment the final buzzer sounded on the Eagles’ 71-67 loss to Arlee.

“I could tell right away the guys were hungry,” Bellach said. “They left that locker room with a lot of passion and hunger to get back there again and get another shot at it.”

That hunger carried through the offseason – summer workouts and camps – and right into the fall sports schedule, where many student-athletes enlisted in football or golf. Bellach says his returners are stronger and faster than a year ago, which is key after the loss of seniors like James Ramirez and Joey Lodine.

“I think we’ll change the way we play a little bit. Those guys, especially rebounding-wise took care of that work. Ryan has been kind of waiting in the wings, Ryan Busch. He’s a senior this year and gave us some awesome minutes last year, especially late in the season at the state tournament,” said Bellach. “(My son) Caleb grew some more this summer and he’s pretty close to 6-foot-5 now and he’s going to have to give us some input in the paint a little bit to make up for that rebounding and the toughness and physicality that they gave us inside.

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“We will play a little bit differently, I think we’ll be faster and getting up and down a little more while playing more spread on the offensive end. We’ve been working on that, too. The guys that are filling in will bring some different stuff to the table, too.”

Bellach has built a steady contender in Manhattan Christian, guiding the Eagles to three consecutive state tournament appearances. A recent inductee into the Montana Tech athletics hall of fame, Bellach knows how challenging it is to keep a Class C program consistent due to low enrollments and parity across the state.

“We’re fortunate here that we have pretty good numbers as far as kids excited about playing the game,” he said. “We have 27 kids in our program this year, which for Class C is pretty unique. We have three teams and I think that allows us to be able to build up from there. But it does, when you have that many different teams, there is that much more unknown.”

One thing all Class C coaches agree on, defending state champion Arlee could be playing again on Saturday night at the state tournament. The Warriors, who have also been to three consecutive state tournaments, return a bevy of talent that has coach Zanen Pitts eager to open the season.

“It’s awesome man. I have butterflies like I did Saturday night in March last year. I’m fricking jacked,” he said.

Pitts returns arguably the most electric athlete in Class C basketball in senior guard Phillip Malatare. Last March he averaged just shy of 24 points per game, including an astounding opening-round game performance which included 32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists, six steals and three blocks.

“I tell people all the time, ‘If you don’t get here in the next 26 games of his high school career, you’re going to regret it. You don’t get to see many kids like him, he’s so electrifying,'” said Pitts. “In all honesty, and I try not to compare high school kids to NBA players too often, but he’s the closest thing you can watch at the high school level in Montana to Russell Westbrook. He’s constantly knocking down triple-doubles, he’s always striving for quadruple-doubles and he’s got some. He has the stop-and-pop in the middle of the key, he’s going to be getting 10 boards per night and he’s trying to get 10 or 15 assists a night, you know he’ll get seven or eight steals per night. There’s no other word but electrifying, and now with his maturity and his ability to be able to create or set his team up, he is one special player to watch.”

Malatare will once again partner with fellow senior Will Mesteth, who had a sensational state tournament in Bozeman last March. Pitts also points to 6-foot-8 junior Issac Fisher as part of the three-headed monster for Arlee this winter. Lane Schall, Lane Johnson and Darshan Bolen will also see significant minutes and hold key roles throughout the season.

“We’re replacing the three slowest players on our team, and nothing against them, with three of the faster kids that I’ve ever coached. So we’ll be way faster, but we’re more emotional,” Pitts admitted. “It’s going to take a little bit. It will take me staying positive with them and letting them learn from their mistakes. When they do? Yikes. Watch out because they are so much faster. They’re very quick.”

Arlee and Manhattan Christian are only a pair of programs returning a bevy of talent to the mix this winter. The other six state tournament teams from a year ago are also reloading and could again make postseason runs.

Bridger lost Ryan Zentner to graduation, but Colby, Colter and Russell Zentner, along with Kolton and Kalen Pospisil, are all back and looking to take the Scouts back to the state tournament. Fairview looks to Carson Cayko to replace scoring voids left by the graduated Pat Hardy and Tanner Reynolds. Dynamic guard Blake DeCrane starts a solid nucleus for coach Buddy Windy Boy at Plenty Coups, and CJ Nelson gained valuable state tournament experience for Scobey last March. Box Elder and Hays-Lodge Pole graduated multiple seniors, but Tanner Parisian and Chay-Chazz Shambo provided big minutes for the Bears and Thunderbirds last season.

Class C consistently sees a few surprise stories each season. Bellach points to Melstone and even Chinook as potential state title contenders.

“Melstone has coach (Jason) Grebe and his son (Brody), plus they got Carson Hein from Forsyth, he’s about 6-foot-7, I think,” Bellach said. “They also have a couple kids that moved up from Huntley Project that are pretty solid players, so I think they’re going to be one of the better teams. … We had a tournament here and Chinook came down and they are very talented. Coach (Mike) Seymour has some really athletic kids and some size to go with speed and shooters. I think they’re a team to watch in the North.”

Pitts echoed those observations and made a strong case for Fairview to be one of his favorites this season. But the road to the state championship still runs through Arlee. Pitts is confident in that statement, especially after witnessing the effort his squad displayed the first time they returned to the court last month.

“I told them the first day of practice, ‘I want to see something. There are are 17 of you here right now, I want to see if every one of you will throw up in this conditioning drill. If you can show me that you honestly can push yourself into the dark, then I honestly can tell you that you could play on Saturday night (at state) because you will play that hard on defense.’ Ten of them threw up,” said Pitts. “I have not seen a group of kids commit that hard in something and that defines the character I’m blessed with this year, so it will be fun to see what they can do.”