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Kalispell Flathead boys basketball opens new coaching era under 'difficult' challenges

Dirk Johnsrud and Joston Cripe.jpg
Posted at 4:05 PM, Jan 12, 2021

MISSOULA — Preparing for a season under the current COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for any coach in Montana.

But new coaches? That's a different challenge entirely.

The Kalispell Flathead boys basketball program is one of many, boys or girls, that sports a new coach manning the sideline in Dirk Johnsrud. While coaches and players are happy to have a season at all and underway, preparation was hard to come by with coaches limited as they tried to learn about their new teams.

"It's been so difficult with COVID-19 but every day we talk about just being positive and happy with the fact that we get to be here and playing this great game," Johnsrud said after Flathead's game against Missoula Sentinel. "(Jan. 7) was our first game and it finally happened. Now we can evaluate where we're at and make improvements in practice and start to polish some things up."

After falling to Sentinel 77-64 in the opener, Flathead (1-1) rebounded quickly and defeated Missoula Big Sky 66-65 in overtime on Saturday at home to give Johnsrud his first win as head coach. After scoring 24 points against Sentinel, Flathead junior Joston Cripe poured in 18 against Big Sky while seniors Hunter Hickey and Ezra Epperly each tallied 14.

The Braves sport five seniors this season in Hickey, Epperly, Ethan Vandenbosch, Tommy Wells and Gabe Adams. Along with that, Flathead's numbers are deep with juniors as the Braves continue to build through this season and beyond.

For returners like Hickey, Johnsrud taking over for Ross Gustafson, who coached Flathead for five seasons, was a positive sign because of Johnsrud's relationship with the program.

"It's working out really well," Hickey said. "My sophomore year, we had coach Johnsrud as our JV coach so we're back with him and really excited to have him as the head coach."

Defense is one area where Flathead wants to focus under Johnsrud, and the Braves will get a chance to continue to improve that side of their game this week when they host Missoula Hellgate -- which is riding a 25-game win streak -- on Thursday before traveling to Butte on Saturday.

"That's been a big push, is becoming a team and fighting for each other," Johnsrud said. "I really like our kids here. We have good athleticism, some kids that really love the game of basketball, now we just need to polish it up."