LODGE GRASS — Lodge Grass vividly remembers how last season ended.
The Indians were on the brink of rolling to the State B boys basketball title before the shutdown due to COVID-19. After having punched a ticket to the state championship game after a semifinal win, word began to spread through the Butte Civic Center that the tournament would be canceled and co-champions crowned.
"Since we were little kids we wanted to play in a state championship," Lodge Grass junior Ty Moccasin said. "We were just one day away from it. It was kind of heartbreaking, but we have to deal with it. People's lives were at stake, but at the same time we wanted to play basketball. The safety of our lives was no longer in our hands at that time."
While Lodge Grass has nearly everyone back from that team, it’s still playing like it has a chip on its shoulder, like a team that hasn't accomplished anything.
“We’re definitely out trying to prove to people that last year wasn’t a fluke and that we’re trying to get back there. I have friends saying that last year we just got lucky," Indians junior D.C. Stewart said. "We’re out here working our butts off to prove that it wasn’t just a miracle. We actually worked hard and we’re doing it again.”
Lodge Grass goes through grueling practices with constant reminders of what it will lead to.
Head coach Josh Stewart yells, "Their hardest day?" His team yells back in unison, "Our workout!" The exchange epitomizes what this Lodge Grass team is about. They'll grind you down, both physically and mentally.
The Indians will be on the short list of front runners again in 2021, as they’re led by a talented junior class, with an added scoring punch from senior Malachai Little Nest. Damon Gros Ventre is the headliner of that junior class, as he just surpassed the 1,000-point mark for his career last week against rival Hardin.
“To have one of those once-a-generation kind of players, to have that is just special," Josh Stewart said. "There’s nights where we could easily just say, ‘Alright, Damon, flip the switch. Go ahead.’ But he still wants to have his brothers excel and succeed. I think he’s taken on that mindset that Elivs Old Bull had. He wanted to make everybody better.”
Gros Ventre, D.C. Stewart and Moccasin have been in the Lodge Grass school system their whole lives and have been playing together as long as they can remember. It’s no surprise, though, as basketball is what drives the Lodge Grass community.
“It’s just awesome and special to see them grow up from these young boys who just love the game, go to the courts, ride horses – you’ll see them riding their horses all the time away from here," Josh Stewart said. "When they have a basketball they’ll be shooting and their horses will be standing there. They’ll go in the courts and shoot and play. Lodge Grass community, that’s what it’s about: culture and love.”
The Indians have a chance to do something special. No Class B boys team has won three consecutive titles since the Lodge Grass teams led by Elvis Old Bull in 1988, ’89 and ’90. Old Bull passed away in 2014 and is widely regarded as one of Montana’s basketball legends. Old Bull's lore is even bigger on the Crow Reservation.
Gros Ventre, D.C. Stewart and Moccasin all gestured to the banners of the late Old Bull and his Lodge Grass teams that don the walls of the gymnasium when asked what motivates them.
“We always talked about it since we were little kids, since we were playing basketball, to win a state championship," Moccasin said. "... We always talked about winning three. It’s reality trying to do what those guys did. Three-peat.”
“Whenever I need someone to turn to – all of these guys now, but when we were younger it was always just (Moccasin) and (D.C. Stewart). We traveled everywhere to tournaments and stuff and we dreamed about this. The time is now. We’ve just got to execute and take it day by day," Gros Ventre said.
“I kind of grew up with (Old Bull)," D.C. Stewart said. "He was always around because he was one of my brother in-laws. He always talked to me. He’s a legend. One of the greats. To be up there with him, to be at the same standard or something like that, it would be totally amazing.”
They say history tends to repeat itself. This Lodge Grass team is trying to prove that true.