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State AA co-champions understand need to cancel tournament title games

Posted: 9:28 PM, Mar 14, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-14 23:28:16-04
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BOZEMAN -- When the public address announcer came over the loud speaker at the Class AA state tournament in Bozeman, the air was sucked out of the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. And then it was followed by a crowd full of fans booing as they learned state was canceled, the night before the championship games.

And for the Missoula Hellgate boys, who had just won their semifinal game over Billings West, the news didn't sit well.

“We’re undefeated and it looks like we just lost a state championship at the buzzer like we did last year,” said Knights head coach Jeff Hays.

The Montana High School Association canceled all tournaments hours after news that four presumptive positive tests for COVID-19 were confirmed in Montana, one in Gallatin County, where the Class AA tournament was being played.

With the cancellation, winners of the semifinal games are now co-state champions. Despite the raw emotions of disappointment in the moment, the teams understand why a call was made.

“These kids are 16, 17, 18-years-old. They feel they are invincible. And they don’t think they can sick or injured from it. MHSA is doing what they think is best and we fully support that,” said Hays.

But for these new co-state champions, like the Helena Capital girls, the news was extremely hard to take.

“For all we’ve worked we wanted that feeling of running to our friends after and holding that plaque. Once we realized that it was okay to cry and we weren’t going to get that feeling, we kind of all just broke down and cried in each others arms,” said Bruins senior Mashayla O'Malley.

This might sting for now because athletic careers were unexpectedly cut short, but Governor Steve Bullock said Saturday in a phone press conference that he believes the MHSA aired on the correct side of caution. And it doesn’t erase anything these talented athletes did up to this moment.

“We understand that the MHSA had to make a tough decision, but I don’t think that takes away at all from what these girls accomplished throughout the course of this season," said Capital girls head coach Katie Garcin-Forba. "I just have a ton of respect for them and what they did for Lady Bruin basketball.”

We can all speculate how every state title game would have played out. But there is no ill will on either side, just admiration to share a title together.

“They respect us, we respect them," Missoula Hellgate senior Abe Johnson said about their co-champions in Billings Skyview. "It would’ve been a battle and we both could’ve proved a lot,”

“It’s just mutual respect for both programs," said Skyview head coach Kevin Morales. "I hold them in high regard there in that sense. Just what they did throughout the season, it’s probably tough on them as it is on us.”

Missoula Hellgate and Billings Skyview are the boys co-champions and Helena Capital and Billings West were state winners for the girls.