MISSOULA — After winning the Class AA state title a season ago, its first outright since 2013, many assumed that the Missoula Hellgate boys basketball team would take a step back after losing six impactful seniors.
But the Knights have picked right up where they left off in this latest campaign and are once again among AA's best.
"That week before Christmas and over Christmas break, we watched film together. Not a lot but just enough and our guys were starting to see more of what we were trying to explain to them," said long-time Hellgate head coach Jeff Hays. "And since then they've really blossomed, they're learning and growing each week and it makes it exciting moving forward."
Though they lost a lot, the Knights returned a pair of key members from last year's team in junior guards Easton Sant and Chance McNulty, two athletes who were as important as anyone last year who, if they weren't starting, were playing starter's minutes.
Their experience on a state championship team has paid off, and they're now bringing up Hellgate's younger group as they entered the season with the target on their back.
"There were some games that I was like, maybe it was going to be a little tougher and not having as much size and like varsity minutes that like we did last year, but then there was some games that I was like, I think we can be pretty good again," McNulty said.
The successes haven't come without early adversity.
Hellgate lost to Billings West in the second game of the season, but since has been on a roll. The Knights have won 11 in a row and are 12-1 on the season including 9-0 and atop the Western AA standings. Hellgate is currently ranked No. 2 in the MontanaSports.com polls.
"I feel like getting a loss early showed us what we don't want to feel," Sant said. "And same as last year, right before divisionals we lost to Glacier and felt like helped us in a way to just know not how we want to feel."
It's a younger group that Hellgate sports as the Knights have just one senior in Luke Hoppe, so it's a lot of juniors and sophomores guiding the program to success once again. Junior Colter Russell and sophomore Zane Gillhouse join Sant, McNulty and Hoppe in the starting lineup, while junior Jacob Finch and sophomores Parker Link, Spencer Wayland, Brody Schneider and Evan Pyron all figure into the rotational mix and contribute.
As February is here, the Knights have seen the rapid growth from start to finish after the season began with question marks, but they've proved they didn't go anywhere and could be a force again once postseason play ultimately arrives.
"I'd say that is our leadership for older kids," Sant said. "And so we're trying to pass that on too. Just bringing up as a group, all of us bringing up the younger kids and just working together."
"After Flathead last weekend, I mean, it's been pretty cool," McNulty said. "Seeing how far we've come from that first loss and not losing since then, knowing that there were going to be teams that wanted to beat us and that were coming to get us, and just like keeping like a clear mind and just focusing on each game one at a time."