MISSOULA — It's one of the best times of the year on the sports calendar with postseason basketball officially here.
One of the best boys basketball teams in the state this year has been the Missoula Loyola Rams. They're young, but they're 17-1, and ready to make a splash at the biggest tournaments of the year.
This comes after last year Loyola went 11-10 on the season as they decided to go young on the roster.
Just how young?
"Half of them don't drive, their parents bring their sack lunches and pick them up and drop them off so they still say yes sir, no sir," Loyola coach Scott Anderson said with a laugh. "We'll see what kind of kids they are when they're juniors and seniors and know everything. But right now they're good kids, it's amazing."
But this year, that gamble has paid off.
"I think getting thrown into it, like just throwing them to the wolves freshman year was a big part of what they've come to today," senior guard Raef Konzen said. "I remember freshman year I was terrified subbing in for that first varsity game. Just trusting them and letting them grow is the big thing. We all make mistakes, especially when you're young, so kind of just letting them roll with it."
Konzen is one of two seniors for the Rams this year along with Jack Fines. But Konzen, like his current young teammates, was thrown into the fire early in his career as a four-year starter, and through the ups and downs, this season has been special.
"It's definitely been a process," Konzen said. "Three coaches, COVID year, it's all been hard to kind of keep rolling with the punches. It's been a lot of fun. Interesting is the best way to (describe it). Definitely patience, lot of trust, Mr. Anderson has done a great job with that so we're in good hands."
That, is Scott Anderson, the longtime Loyola coach who stepped away in 2014 after 24 years at the helm, but returned last year to help get the program back on track.
"We thought we were a year away," Anderson explained. "This year we thought we might have a chance to be pretty good and they have just progressed so much and I'm so excited about them. And our young kids put the time in this summer."
Loyola's roster is rounded out with three juniors and four sophomores, most of whom start, along with other younger players who occasionally see time when pulled up from junior varsity.
While Konzen runs the show at point guard and Fines adds depth at shooting from the bench, sophomores Ethan Stack, Reynolds Johnston and Jack Clevenger all start as does junior Noah Haffey. Junior Talen Reynolds and sophomore Declan Harrington also rotate in as starters, as Anderson decided to roll with that young cast of players right away when he took over and power through the growing pains to get to this point.
But growing together with players all similar in age made last year's middle-of-the-road season easier to develop in as they built toward this year's near-perfect run. Only Class A Columbia Falls has defeated Loyola on the year.
"Coach will always say how much we've improved and looking back on last season, just seeing the growth, it's pretty sick," Johnston said. "It's been amazing. Coming into it, I didn't expect it, but seeing how the team has done and how we've grown together, it's like a whole family here and it's amazing."
Players like Johnston remember how last year's learning curve was a challenge, but how they've taken that growth and run with it this season.
"At the start of (last) season, I remember every shot was rushed, I could barely make a wide open layup," Johnston recalled. "But then throughout the season I began to like slow down in the post and just gather myself and I became a better scorer, better finisher."
So with a near spotless record, Loyola prepares for postseason play with the District 6B tournament this week, as they hope it's just the start of what becomes a deep run at the State B tournament in Great Falls in three weeks.
"Not letting it get to our head and staying humble and staying focused," Johnston said. "Just locking in and if we have a blowout game, we just have to remember to use each game to get better. Each game we have to not play down, just have to keep playing up to how good we can play and trying to reach that higher level of play that we could reach."