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East Helena boys looking to 'enjoy the moment' at program's first Eastern A divisional tournament

East Helena Vigilantes
EHHS Boys BBall
Posted at 10:59 PM, Feb 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-22 00:59:55-05

EAST HELENA — After three years as a varsity program, East Helena head boys basketball coach Ty Ridgeway finally has the opportunity to take his Vigilantes to the Eastern A divisional tournament in Billings — something never done before in program history.

East Helena will meet Havre in the opening round of the tournament at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

"I woke up (Wednesday) morning feeling not nervous, not pressured," Ridgeway said. "You know, we're going into this tournament as the underdogs, we have no pressure at all, we have no target on our backs, and, you know, I'm sure teams are overlooking us, saying, 'Oh, these are the newcomers.' And I just (told the players), 'Go play hard, enjoy the moment, have fun, play with the energy you've been playing with these last couple weeks, and if the ball doesn't fall, then let's play great defense.'"

Talen Thatcher is one of the many sophomores on this year's squad who has had to step up in multiple ways during his first season playing varsity basketball.

"Just having a positive mentality and all of us being on the same level, all of us thinking the same thing, because I mean, (it only takes) one person, then the whole team’s just in a slump, so we all just got to have the same mentality," Thatcher said.

Ridgeway commented on his current squad, which has continued to build the new program the right way.

“It’s been a process. ... This is a young group. I am so excited for our three seniors to get to experience this before they graduate and our young kids, too, just to have this experience," he said. "And hopefully it will be a stepping stone every year (for all sports) to say, 'Hey, we want to get to divisionals, we want to get to the state tournament every year.' And it’s worked out well, the kids have been working hard and they're coming together, especially at the right time.

"We have been around for five years now. These younger kids have seen some of these older kids — you know, the nine seniors that graduated last year were a huge part of this, building this program, so yeah, it's exciting."

Andrew Maxness, another sophomore and East Helena starter, said his team has been able to bond and come together at the right time.

“It’s history, it is the first time any sports team here has gone to divisionals," the 6-foot-2 guard said. "You know, (after defeating Laurel in the play-in game last week) it was just joy, a big hug from Ridgeway. I know it’s a lot for him, he’s been here since it started and it’s his first divisional appearance, so it will be an experience going there this weekend for sure."

"Ridgeway, I think he's the best coach in the game," Maxness added. "You know, (Havre) got us early in the year, they blew us out, yeah, I'll admit it, but I think we grew since then. I think we'll bring our 'A' game (Thursday) and it will be a much better game. ... It's fun to play for the Vigilantes."

Maxness actually hit the game winner that upset the Laurel Locomotives, 42-41, last week during the play-in round. He has been preparing for this moment with teammates such as Thatcher, DeonDray Ellis, Slade Olson, Tucker Petty and the gang.

"Honestly, I'm just like, basketball gods, please bless us, like, don't (let Laurel's shot attempts) go in, please," said Thatcher. "It was just crazy, it was my first time ever, like, in that experience of a high school varsity game, a last-second shot, but it was crazy."

However, it was East Helena junior Slade Olson who may have summed it up best.

“It’s exciting because it’s the first time we’ve ever done this before, so it’s a big step as a program, and it’s really fun just growing as the season has gone on and getting to where we are now. It’s cool to see,” Olson said. “I can’t believe we did it. I can't believe (Laurel's) shots didn’t go in. It was a great feeling as a program, and as a player to finally get to that step, it was really exciting."

Since the largest win in team history, coach Ridgeway has his guys focused and ready to play their style of basketball Thursday afternoon in Billings.

"It's been awesome. You know, just the excitement around the community has been great," Ridgeway said. "They're not afraid right now, they are very confident for a young group, it's really cool to see."

To follow updated scores and pairings throughout the Class A boys basketball divisional tournaments, click here.