GREAT FALLS -- When Lukas Vining checked in for Rocky Mountain College in early December against the University of Providence, it marked the first minutes of the season for the redshirt senior after recovering from offseason ankle surgery.
But it also marked another first for Lukas – it was the first time he’d ever shared the court as teammates with his brother Sam, a redshirt freshman. A moment that was years in the making came in their hometown in front of friends and family.
“Usually when you start to play with new players, it might take a little bit to kind of build some chemistry,” Lukas said. "But me and Sam kind of have had that chemistry - we've been around each other our whole lives and played with each other, getting shots up in the gym, playing one-on-one all the time. So, it's kind of like natural for us to have chemistry out on the basketball court as well.”
Despite the ingrained chemistry, the brothers have more experience being rivals on the court than on the same team.
Lukas, a redshirt senior at Rocky, played high school basketball at Great Falls High. Sam followed his sisters Haley and Hannah to CMR.
“Most of my family went to CMR,” Lukas said. “But I grew up playing with a lot of kids that were Great Falls High kids, through youth and travel league. So, for me that was part of the decision to go to GFH, to stick with that group of kids. Sam ended up growing up and playing with the kids on the CMR side of town. And it just kind of worked out that way.”
When Lukas was a senior on the Bison in 2015, he squared off against his brother twice. Sam, a freshman at CMR, made his varsity debut in the first crosstown clash of the season and immediately found himself matched up against his older brother.
“I was honestly just hoping that they didn't call an isolation at the time,” laughed Sam. “But it was wild that my varsity debut came in a crosstown atmosphere against my brother. It can be overwhelming. But it was good for me and it was obviously a really cool moment for our family and everything.”
Then the two went their separate ways. Lukas signed with Montana Tech, where he spent two seasons before transferring to Rocky. Sam led CMR to a 2018 state title as a senior and weighed his college options.
But ultimately the chance to team up with his brother in college was too good to pass up. And Lukas applied a little recruiting pressure to get Sam to Billings.
“I put it on pretty hard,” Lukas laughed. "I’m Sam’s biggest fan and I had the utmost confidence in Sam, and I told the coaches whoever picks Sam up is going to get a great deal and a great player. I've been in the league for a couple of years at that point when Sam was in the recruiting process. So, I knew that Sam was going to be a really good player in this league, and he was going to have a lot of success.”
After cracking the varsity rotation as a sophomore at CMR, Sam developed into a complete player and deadly shooter just like his brother.
“Lukas steered me towards Rocky and then I got to know the system, actually just how the school worked, how the coaches worked, how everything worked, and I really loved it,” Sam said. “And so I get to go to this great program with my brother, that's a big bonus. I like to have Lucas there and I get to have him help me with figuring this college stuff out.”
Both are key contributors to Rocky and filling major roles in their lone season as teammates. Sam, a redshirt freshman, is starting at guard for the Battlin’ Bears and averaging 12.3 points per game. Lukas, a redshirt senior, is still working his way back from injury while contributing 5.8 ppg in six games off the bench.
Their success on the court is just an extension of growing up in the hoops-mad Vining household.
“It was very competitive and we're just like a competitive group of people,” Lukas said. “So, it didn't matter if we're playing family kickball at Thanksgiving or a game of Madden or front-yard basketball or 3-point contests. Everything got really competitive.”
After years on opposite sides of the river in Great Falls, the Vining brothers know how special it is to team up. But they know they only get one shot at this and hope to make it a memorable season at Rocky.
“We just want to go out there and win games, get better every game and watch each other play,” Sam said. “It'll be obviously a really special year regardless, but we plan on going out there and we plan on winning every night. So, it'll be a special season for us, especially if we can go in and prove that we can compete with the best.”
Rocky Mountain (5-5 overall) hosts Dickinson State on Friday night before returning to Frontier Conference play against Montana Tech on Jan. 9.