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Harrison boys embracing 'a great opportunity' in first-ever state tournament appearance

Posted at 2:34 PM, Feb 28, 2024

HARRISON — Harrison senior Andrew Bacon can still recall the breakthrough that the Wildcats experienced back in 2020, when he was suiting up for the high school boys basketball team as an eighth grader.

That season, the Wildcats advanced out of the District 12C tournament and on to the Western C divisional. For a team that had been mired in struggles for years and had never punched a state ticket, it marked a promising step in the right direction.

"We really had a good program start getting going," recalled Bacon. "We made divisionals that year. And that was a big goal because we hadn't made divisionals in a long time before that."

And guess what? The long-suffering Wildcats went on to make it to the Western C his freshman year. And sophomore season. And junior year. But despite that run of success, Harrison still found all of those seasons concluding with the Wildcats stranded in the divisional round, sometimes in heartbreaking fashion.

Case in point: Harrison advanced to the Western C championship last season but ultimately fell to defending state champion Manhattan Christian. But rather than settling for a second-place divisional finish — which would have sent the Wildcats on to their first state tournament — third-place Western C finisher Lone Peak was granted a challenge game against the Wildcats since the two teams hadn't met at that tournament.

Lone Peak ended up prevailing 49-45, sending the Wildcats into an offseason with a large question mark hanging overhead.

For Harrison head coach Zach Murphy, a Butte Central product now in his sixth season guiding the Wildcats, there was no sugar-coating it: That was a tough defeat to swallow for a team that was so close to ending its drought.

"It was pretty tough to handle last year, that was a tough loss, getting so close," said Murphy, who coached Harrison's junior high boys for two seasons before taking over the high school program. "And the kids put so much pressure on themselves. It took a while to get over but I think it ended up motivating us."

Motivation is something that Murphy has been instilling in his team since he took over for the 2018-19 season, back when losses were much more plentiful than wins.

"For the kids to buy in was super important," said Murphy. "And I was lucky to have some really good team leaders early and that set the tone. It really worked its way down to the younger kids."

For Gavin Hokanson, now a senior, the goals for this team were set in stone following that deflating loss to the Big Horns.

"We all knew that we wanted to make it to state," said Hokanson. "We wanted to get that feeling where we can win."

Flash forward to last weekend's Western C tournament in Frenchtown where the Wildcats' divisional path followed one identical to last season — advance to the title game where Harrison fell to a Manhattan Christian squad coming off yet another state championship.

But, unlike last year, the consolation bracket worked in Harrison's favor. West Yellowstone, which Harrison beat in the semifinals, outlasted St. Regis in overtime in the third-place game. Since the Wildcats and Wolverines had already squared off, a challenge game was off the table and, for the first time in program history, Harrison took second place at the Western C.

The Wildcats, at long last, are headed to their first-ever State C tournament. Second-seeded Harrison (17-7) will face off against undefeated Northern C champion Box Elder in the opening round on March 6 at Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls.

"I've been dreaming of making it to state, and the extra two weeks is just exciting," said Bacon. "Get to play more basketball with my boys. It's a great opportunity."

"It's definitely going to be a big stage," said Hokanson. "No one in Harrison's ever done that before. We're gonna have a ton of people there obviously. And the environment should be awesome."