BUTTE — With nine seniors graduated last year, this season's Butte Central boys basketball team looked a whole lot different than the squad that advanced to the Class A championship in 2020.
But despite carrying an underdog label for the entirety of the season, the Maroons still managed to book a return trip to the state tournament.
"I'm just thrilled for our guys that we are back," said Central coach Brodie Kelly, whose team will open against Billings Central on Thursday at 11 a.m. at Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls. "You know, this year, starting over with a whole new team, this was a lot for these guys to take on this year."
The Maroons head to state as the West's No. 4 seed and the Rams are the East's No. 1 seed after claiming the Eastern A crown. Last year, Butte Central upset the then-defending state champion Rams in the opening round.
The Maroons opened this season at 2-4 before things started to click with their young team.
"We had a whole new group of guys this year and we had to learn where we fit in with each other," said senior Bryan "Hugo" Holland. "We came closer and learned how to play with each other and we got rolling."
"I feel like down the stretch we really started to play cohesively," Kelly said. "Offensively the ball was moving much better, defensively we started to anticipate better and that really is a process that takes some time."
Central went on to lock up the Southwest A No. 3 seed and routed Stevensville in a divisional play-in game. At the Western A, hosted in Butte, the Maroons downed Ronan 67-50 before falling to unbeaten Dillon 58-48 in the semifinals.
Facing a win-or-stay-home game against Hamilton, the Maroons dug in and pulled out a 49-38 win to lock up a state berth.
"I think they're excited to be going and I'm happy for them to be going," said Kelly. "All this is new for them and that's fun to see. Every team that's come through our program and had the opportunity to go to state and earned it on their own, I think they're really proud of being there."
The winner of the Butte Central-Billings Central opening-round game will face the winner of the Polson-Lewistown first-round game in a Friday semifinal at 7:30 p.m.