CROW AGENCY — Lodge Grass had waited 30 years to celebrate another state championship.
Elvis Old Bull helped the Indians win three consecutive titles from 1988-90. One of the greatest players in Montana history, Old Bull was the MVP each season.
But since he left the building in 1990, the Indians hadn’t been back to the championship game until this March.
“There was that roller coaster of, ‘Hey, we made it. The first time in 30 years we made it to the top.’ And then just minutes later they were canceled,” Lodge Grass boys basketball coach Josh Stewart reflected during a recent phone interview with MTN Sports.
Stewart’s Lodge Grass team climbed to the top with a magnificent season, compiling a 14-4 regular-season record with two of those losses coming to eventual Class A co-state champion Hardin. The Indians stormed through tournament play, winning all but one of their seven postseason games by double digits.
They were even better at the state tournament, routing Shelby 71-40 in the first round and Rocky Boy 81-54 in the semifinal.
But that’s when it all ended.
Though it certainly feels like March lasted more than 31 days, it’s actually been less than a month since the Montana High School Association canceled the state basketball tournaments. The MHSA crowned co-state champions across the state on March 13, including in Butte, where Lodge Grass shared the Class B boys title with Fairfield.
“I think they felt accomplished, they felt great, they took pride in it, and because there’s so much more to life, they’re just grateful to be on this journey and to have reached the state final and be co-champions with Fairfield,” Stewart said of his team.
The Lodge Grass boys were chasing a championship that’s otherwise eluded them since Old Bull’s heyday. Lodge Grass was a perennial powerhouse for a number of years, but it had taken some time for the Indians to get back into regularly playing at the Class B state tournament.
There was a long absence until they broke the drought in 2012. There was another brief hiatus until 2017, when they then went in back-to-back years. Lodge Grass placed fourth at the 2018 state tournament.
This year was shaping up to be special, though, and that’s not lost on Stewart, his team or the basketball-obsessed community on the Crow Reservation.
“They’re going to celebrate it, and they have been celebrating it, the community has been celebrating it. What it has done for the community is beyond words and what they have been able to accomplish, so I think that has overcome that thought of not being able to play the championship and being down or depressed over it. They don’t have that,” Stewart said. “So, I’m very grateful that this is such a good group of young men, because they have a great understanding of life and where they’re at and that at any moment this could be taken from them, so to make it that far, it was exciting, it was great, and we’re still happy about it.”
While the Indians have accepted the circumstances and celebrated their championship, they don’t necessarily have closure. There’s a sense of “unfinished business,” according to their coach.
And that’s helping motivate the team during these unprecedented times where the public is instructed to stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Stewart keeps in touch with his players in a group chat and also conducts regular individual checkups.
“Staying motivated, staying hungry, not losing any of that in any way because we’re down — globally, actually. Our state is down, our country is down, this whole world is basically shut down right now,” said Stewart. “We’ve just got to stay hungry, stay motivated and keep doing those things that keep that champion mindset in shape.”
That should bode well for next year when Lodge Grass returns the bulk of its contributors. There were just four seniors listed on this year’s roster, meaning all-state selection Damon Gros Ventre and all-conference choice Malachi Little Nest will both be back next year.
Gros Ventre, who proved to be one of the best players in all of Class B this past season as a 6-foot-5 sophomore, headlines an impressive class that also includes Ty Moccasin, Jaxon McCormick and Jadenc Archilta.
“We had great momentum going in, and I think they just, they know that there’s unfinished business there,” Stewart said, “so they’re more motivated looking forward to next year.”