BIG SKY – Before playing football for the Montana State Bobcats, Austin Barth was an all-state basketball player at Columbia Falls where he won a state title in 2011 and a runner-up finish the following season. After five years on the turf, Barth has returned to the hardwood.
“In high school, I always thought that basketball was going to be the sport that I played in college,” Barth said. “It was always my first love, always loved playing it. Now I that I get to return that love and give to these players, it’s been a great time so far.”
While at Montana State, Barth played under both Rob Ash and Jeff Choate. In his first year as head coach of the Lone Peak Bighorns, Barth brings a winning attitude associated with Bobcat football with him to Big Sky.
“Every coach I’ve been with has always wanted to win,” Barth said when asked what he’s taken from previous coaches. “It’s just been installed in me. I want to win, and I’m trying to bring that upon Big Sky right now with both our football program and now our basketball program.”
As the mantra goes, defense wins championships. From Day 1, Barth has preached the importance of the defensive end.
“We’ve had a lot of defensive coaching, and we’ve had a change of defensive mindset,” guard Kolya Bough said. “I think that’s why we’re flying around everywhere, getting steals, getting turnovers. First practice, he came in and said we were going to be a defensive team, so I think we all just kind of locked in and said, ‘If we’re going to be a defensive team, let’s go get it.'”
“Barth’s motto from the beginning has been, ‘Defense wins championships,’ so that’s what we’re trying to do,” said senior Liam Germain.
“That’s how you win games,” Barth said. “If you want to be at the championship level, you’re going to need to be able to play great defense and shut great players down.”
But Barth still has his football roots. Current Bighorn players have seen the emphasis that Barth puts into being physical at both ends of the floor. With the Bighorns tallest player at just 6-foot-2, the importance of physicality grows.
“In football, like he said, the lower man always wins,” senior forward Jackson Wade said. “So it’s the same kind of thing as, like, getting that box-out and then exploding up and trying to get the ball at the highest point. Then also being smart, playing good defense, and moving your feet and everything.”
“Jackson’s buying into it a little bit,” Barth said with a chuckle. “Some of the other guys, we need to throw a little bit of weight on them first, but we’re going to get physical. It’s something that’s going to come.”
When patrolling the sidelines, Barth’s passion and enthusiasm for the game stands out above all. The energy he brings to the bench is felt on the floor.
“Energy, energy, and more energy,” Germain said when asked what Barth brings. “He’s an awesome coach, and he loves it as much as all of us do, so he just makes it fun for all of us.”
“He’s instilled that work ethic, brought a lot of great energy to the team,” Wade said. “We’re going to be a defensive team, that’s what we’re all about. The offense is going to take care of itself every night, so the defense is the one thing that we can control how much effort we put into.”
Lone Peak is a young group, boasting just three seniors. However, the Bighorns have their sights set on success.
“Well, my goal is to make it to divisionals,” Germain said. “I’ve never made it to divisionals in my high school career, so a berth at divisionals would definitely be the goal.”
“I’m really excited,” Bough said. “We expect to go to divisionals. I’m pretty excited, and I think that this defensive mindset will definitely help.”
“We expect to be at the top of the conference,” Wade said. “We expect to go to divisionals, we expect to win a lot of games and compete with every team that we play against.”
“There’s a lot of athletes here with the skiing community,” Barth said. “Now, we just need to bring that focus into the other sports and bring those athletes out and pretty much just showcase what they have.”
While the environment at the Class C level differs from what Barth experienced in high school, the love the players have for the game remains constant.
“Class A is a little bit different, I think, crowds are a little bit different,” Barth said about the transition to Class C. “But, I tell you what, the players love to play. It’s going to be a learning experience for me as much as it is for these guys. I’ve got a great assistant coach with John Hannahs. He’s been helping me a lot with relationships, too. He’s been doing this for four years, he knows everybody around the conference, and he’s helping me there. But we’re looking forward to the season.”
In his first year as the head man, Barth has the Bighorns fired up.