GREAT FALLS — Steve Keller has knack for finding diamonds in the rough.
At Montana Western, he signed unheralded stars like Brandon Brown and Dom Robinson, who were lightly recruited out of high school but each earned Frontier Conference MVP honors in their illustrious careers.
And in his first year at the University of Providence, Keller might have struck gold again with a pair of fifth-year senior transfers from Las Vegas in Austin Starr and Jaylen Shepard.
“We needed some guards, and with these guys we got a little bit of everything,” Keller said. “They all can shoot, they’re competitive, they want to win, and they were winners at different places before.”
Starr and Shepard have known each other since they were in the third grade, and starred on the court together at Foothill High School in Las Vegas. But their respective college careers went vastly different directions before Keller brought them back together.
Starr started as a walk-on at UNLV before joining the College of Southern Idaho for two seasons. He then signed with Prairie View A&M before leaving the team following a coaching change.
“Circumstances were bad and I just couldn’t stay there,” Starr said.
Shepard went the JUCO route directly out of high school, signing with Miles Community College to play for coach Chase Tait – a former assistant of Keller’s. The move from Las Vegas to small-town Montana has provided a bit of a culture shock for the star guard.
“Coming from Vegas, we can get up and go hang out with a friend, we can go to an arcade or something, just do whatever we want,” laughed Shepard. “We came here and it was basketball, school and weights. That’s it. We could go on a walk to Walmart and that’s what we did for fun.”
After two successful years with the Pioneers, Shepard signed with Northwest Nazarene, an NCAA Division II program located in Nampa, Idaho. Things didn’t work out the way he’d hoped.
“Honestly, I could have played for better schools, but I was immature and wanted to go to a school that showed me the most love,” he said. That’s how I ended up going to NNU. It didn’t really work out for me. Got into some trouble on the court.”
Shepard took a year and a half off of college and went back to Las Vegas to work out. Eventually he got the itch again. Over two years in Miles City, Shepard had built a great relationship with Tait. He called him up one day.
“Tait played a major role in my life,” Shepard said. “I told him I wanted to be close to him and I want to play for someone that’s like him.”
Tait knew exactly who to call. Shepard received a call from Keller, who had just taken the job at Providence, within the hour.
“We just started talking and I’m like, ‘Yeah, Coach, I’m ready to come play,'” Shepard said.
It was then that Shepard told his new coach about his childhood friend and training partner who was also looking for new basketball home with one year of eligibility left.
Starr received a call the next day.
“Coach Keller called and told me he heard about me from Jaylen and (assistant) coach JC Isaakson,” Starr recalled. “He took a chance on me, and I’m very grateful for it.”
After five years playing apart, the two kids from Las Vegas with big dreams were back on the same team. They have one year to help the University of Providence become a winner, and so far their experience and chemistry are paying dividends. Starr and Shepard are both averaging more than 17 points per game and have led the Argos to a 4-1 start to the season.
“We played with each other in high school and so we have that kind of chemistry right now that a lot of people don’t have when they come from a new school,” Starr said. “We came out here together, and he’s been one of my really good friends since I was in third grade. He’s been a big influence when it comes to working out or just playing one-on-one. I owe a lot to him and where I’m at right now, so it’s been a big journey for us.”
Given the ups and downs of their basketball journeys, it would be easy for the two friends to have a negative attitude about the twists, turns and setbacks that led them to Montana. But the two are making the most of the second chance that Keller has given them. They’re not the same men they were coming out of high school.
“It’s unbelievable, honestly,” Shepard said. “I look back at my decision to go to Miles. That was the best decision I’ve made. I’ve grown a lot. People would say there’s nothing to do here in Great Falls, but I have everything I need. I’m at peace here.”
“If you asked them, not one of them probably thought they’d end up playing college basketball in Montana,” he said. “But that’s the route that they’ve taken. The bottom line is, kids are happy if they’re playing and if they’re winning no matter where they’re at.”