The ending to the 2020 high school basketball season was a bitter one for the Huntley Project boys. Project was bounced at the divisional tournament after entering as one of the favorites. The Red Devils fell to Columbus in a Saturday morning loser-out game after not losing to the Cougars during the regular season.
That weekend has stuck with the Red Devils and motivated them all offseason.
“It was almost every single open gym there was someone bringing up divisionals last year. We can’t have this happen. We’d play bad one day and we’d say, ‘We’ve got to pick it up. We don’t want to lose out at divisionals again,'" Huntley Project senior forward Noah Bouchard said. "We want to get to state and make a name for ourselves, so it definitely stuck with us.”
“I know it affected us now seniors the most, because we were here," Huntley Project senior guard Tim Rose said. "A lot of the seniors graduated, but we had to stay locked in and really grind even when it was lockdown. We couldn’t really get in the gym, we had to find time to go in the driveway, get better and keep working at the game.”
A lot of pieces are back for Project this year, including returning all-state selections Bouchard and Rose, but there’s been a change at the top. Mark Branger is back as the boys basketball coach after taking a few years off. It couldn’t come at a better time, either, as he gets the chance to coach his grandson in the process.
“It’s very emotional, because he started coming, even though he lived in Billings, he was coming to our basketball camps as a third grader," Branger said of Bouchard. "From third grade on up, when I was still coaching, him and his brother, Isaiah, were coming to our camps. I coached his dad. I coached his uncle. I never really dreamed I’d have the opportunity to coach him, but it’s a real privilege.”
“I love it. I’ve been coached by him since I was little, so I knew this was going to happen one day, at least I hoped it would. It’s really cool seeing something you planned when you were a little kid come around when you’re older," Bouchard said.
Branger has sat in the stands the past few seasons watching Bouchard and his teammates, but last year’s divisional tournament irked him just as much as it did the kids. Ultimately, he had to scratch that coaching itch one more time, but he almost had to start from scratch with a senior-laden team.
“I’ve really gone back to the basics and we’re really working on the fundamentals, which those kids lacked. To their credit, they’re on board and they’re working hard," Branger said.
“He’s always telling us fundamentals, discipline and stay locked in. You can’t give up two minutes of a game, that could be the difference, so staying locked in, keeping everyone involved is what we need to win the game," Rose said. "He’s definitely brought that for us.”
“We’re a lot more disciplined. We’re a lot more focused in practice. He gets on us a lot more," Bouchard said. "We make mistakes and he lets us know about our mistakes, but he’s also the first one there to congratulate us. It’s a coach we want to play for. It’s a coach we’d lay our whole night out for, lay our body out for, so we all love him as a coach.”
Branger and his Huntley Project squad have high hopes as the 2021 postseason approaches, especially after picking up a win at Lodge Grass on Tuesday to avenge their only loss. Project is unbeaten in District 4B play and the Red Devils' only other loss came to Class A Laurel.
Branger’s wife and Bouchard’s grandmother recently lost a battle with breast cancer, but you can bet the Red Devils will have their guardian angel watching over them as they make a run at the state tournament.