MISSOULA — The past four years haven't been kind to the Missoula Big Sky boys basketball program.
The Eagles have a combined eight wins over the past four seasons, including a winless mark in 2017-18. The year before that, the program had two wins, with three wins in 2018-19 followed by three more victories a season ago. That, coupled with the fact that Missoula Hellgate and Missoula Sentinel have been either contenders or state qualifiers during that same time period, means the competition for Missoula's third Class AA school has been a gauntlet each season.
But so far in 2021, the Eagles are 2-2 to start the season under second-year head coach Ryan Hansen. Big Sky opened the season with a win over Kalispell Glacier, its first season-opening victory in five years, followed by an overtime loss to Kalispell Flathead.
This week, Big Sky fell to Helena Capital on Tuesday before rebounding to top Helena High on Thursday.
Two games showcased potential, and two more proved there is still work to be done.
"I think its a group of kids that care about each other. They’re motivated to play for each other and play as a team and win as a team," Hansen said. "Last year we started to make some baby steps and start working towards that and I told the kids last year there’s not many teams that are 0-13 or whatever and keep fighting the way we did to get that first win. Now this year, we got that first win earlier, so now how are we going to respond?"
A key for this year is stability. During that four-year run, the program underwent two coaching changes, with Hansen taking over last season after spending 2018-19 as an assistant coach. Last season the Eagles started 0-13 before finishing 3-18, including an important win over Sentinel for its second win of the season.
"This is their third year dealing with me and so I think they’ve got what I’m pushing figured out and what I’m preaching and the mentality and direction that we’re trying to get this program to go in and I think they’re starting to figure that out," Hansen said. "They want to be here, they want to play for this program and they want to be the ones that turn it around."
This year, the Eagles return two starters in junior Tre Reed and senior Kade Olson who start alongside senior Chaz LaDue and juniors Louis Sanders and Caden Bateman. Dayne Jarrett, Mitch Muralt and Evan Towe along with LaDue and Olson are the five seniors for the team. Sanders missed all of last season due to injury but is back. Bateman also missed most of the season due to injury and when he did play was in a cast. Juniors Kolbe Jensen and Jake Gardanier also gained a lot of varsity experience last year.
"I like that we’re not selfish," Olson said. "When we get back in the locker room we’re not like, ‘Hey, how many points did you get, how many points did I get?’ It’s what can we improve, what can we do next game and how can we get better to come out on the floor next game and beat the team we’re going up against.
"We want all of our younger classmen to be close with each other. It’s pretty vital to having a good program, is everybody being very cohesive."
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Big Sky is not immune to its effects. Thursday's game against Helena marked Big Sky's fourth game in three practices, so while there are elements of the game to clean up, the Eagles have had to do so in-game. No summer programs meant limited time on the floor and the team had to miss practices in December due to quarantine, so while there is a core group of players, learning to play as a unit has been on-the-fly. Big Sky's win over Glacier came as the Eagles were unable to practice for the game in the eight days leading up to the match, including losing their original opener against Butte.
Those improvements will be tested this upcoming week when the Eagles are scheduled to take on the crosstown rival Spartans, a team that is an early state favorite in the Class AA ranks.
"I think this is a group that will respond and we can clean things up," Hansen said. "Skills-wise we're a little better off this year, now I just think we got to get the mental aspect figured out and then I think we'll be alright."