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‘Crazy 8,’ playing to strengths help Billings Skyview girls through period of uncertainty to powerhouse season

New coach, new faces brought new questions, but Skyview girls answered call
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Posted at 12:39 PM, Feb 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-19 14:39:29-05

BILLINGS — Uncertainty doesn’t often come Breanna Williams’ way.

We’re talking about the reigning Montana girls basketball Gatorade player of the year here, Billings Skyview’s all-time leading scorer who, as a sophomore in 2022, was named the state tournament MVP in helping the Falcons win the program’s first championship, someone who has committed to play for the University of Maryland in the Big Ten next season, and Class AA’s scoring leader, rebound leader and assist leader this season.

Uncertainty, in terms of the basketball court at least, hasn’t been a part of Williams’ world for some time.

Last spring, though, doubt did creep into her mind. In March 2023, the Falcons failed to defend their title, finishing third instead. The end of the season meant the loss of five seniors, two of whom — Charlize Davis and Alexa Brauer — combined for nearly 20 points and seven rebounds per game and were steady staples in the Falcons’ lineup.

About a month later, a big blow came when coach Brent Montague announced he was stepping down. All Montague did was take over a 1-19 team and in his first year break a 20-year state-tournament drought, win it all in his third season, and guide the team to third place the next.

Suddenly, not only would the Falcons be searching for players to fill the Davis/Brauer voids, but who would be leading the program as it tried to cash in on Williams’ final season?

“We were all heartbroken, and there was this time of uncertainty, whether we would get a good coach again,” Williams said. “Whether the program would be the same ever again, since coach Mon had built that legacy, a new foundation at Skyview. So, yeah, there was a time of uncertainty.”

Williams, though, had a target in mind for the coaching position. Randy Chase won a girls state championship in 2011 as head coach at Billings West, but had spent the past decade as an assistant — the last six years with the Skyview boys and the previous five with the Billings Central boys.

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Randy Chase, center, guided the Billings West girls to a Class AA basketball championship in 2011. He's trying to do the same at Billings Skyview in his first season with the Falcons.

Chase is a teacher and coach at Castle Rock Middle School, which feeds into Skyview, and most of the Falcons girls basketball players know him well. Williams said she constantly needled Chase about applying for the job, but he was noncommittal whenever she asked.

Then one day, Williams saw Chase at Skyview, decked out in a suit and tie. He’s interviewing for the job, Williams thought.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Hey, coach,’“ she said.

Williams smiled at the recollection and said she went back to class, believing in what she called a ‘new start’ for the Falcons.

Chase was hired in late May, which meant little time for the Falcons and their new coach to get to know each other before the summer circuit hit.

The universal answer to the question of how to get a bunch of people to learn each other’s personalities and quirks? Road trip.

Chase rushed to rent a van and get hotel rooms — “My wife said, ‘Are you ready for this?’” Chase joked — and with son Michael, who was to be the junior varsity coach, the group headed to a tournament at the University of Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington by the third week of June. Williams hadn’t committed to any school at that point and was still being recruited by the Zags.

So not only did the Falcons get to play together as a new team under a new coach, but Williams’ teammates also saw first-hand how big-time recruiting goes. They got to tag along as Williams was feted by tours of the locker room, weight room, things like that.

Chase remembers his team winning only a game or two at that tournament, but they gained so much more, he said. Team bonding 101.

“That's when you could start to see the glimpses of, yeah, this group's going to be special,” said Chase, who held over assistant coach Burke Helmer to the staff and added longtime Skyview multi-sport coach Todd Bertsch and former Billings Senior coach Amy Pfeifle as well as volunteer assistant Jacey Reiter, a former Falcon player.

“We just started to see where they're buying in, the confidence is starting to grow, and we just kept building on that all summer and then in the fall until we could get started," Chase said.

That trip also laid the groundwork for the ‘Crazy 8’ nickname the players later bestowed upon themselves, varsity members of Williams, Angel Martin, Makenzie Strachan, Rae Smart, Taryn Salveson, Tenley Leffer, Rylee Malcher and Kiki Lonebear, for their looseness and propensity to joke around.

“It was definitely like a learning experience because that was our first time all playing together with the returning five and then the three others,” said Martin, a returning starting guard who averaged five points, two assists and two steals last season. “So, it was just a dip in the water seeing how it is and then knowing what we’ve got to work on the upcoming season.”

And what a season’s it’s been. With just one week remaining in the regular season, the Falcons are unbeaten at 16-0.

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The Billings Skyview bench cheers on teammates during a game earlier this season at Billings West.

The brilliance of Williams, of course, is undeniable. In her last six games, she’s averaged 29.8 points (with a school-record 41 in one of those games), 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists, and her season-long averages of 22.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists are tops in AA. (Williams, by the way, has 1,482 career points, surpassing the mark of 1,314 set by Brooke Berry, who is a redshirt freshman at Montana State).

Smart, Lonebear, Salveson and Strachan all average between 6.0 and 8.0 points, while Chase sings the defensive prowess of Leffler and Martin, who have helped the Falcons limit opponents to just 38 points per game, second behind Missoula Big Sky.

While the Falcons do have the state’s best player, they are also a team where everyone seems on the same page, where everyone has a role and plays it well. The basketball IQ as a group is also high, and no player seems to attempt things she’s not capable of doing, Chase said.

Case in point: Last week against Belgrade, Williams, who serves as a primary ball-handler most times despite her 6-foot-3 height, pushed the ball up the court. As she reached the top of the foul circle, she threaded a pass to Smart on the right block.

Williams thought Smart would get a layup out of the play, but as a Belgrade wing baseline defender collapsed on Smart for a double team, Smart immediately kicked the ball to Salveson in the corner for an open made 3-pointer.

“I feel like we all work together as a team,” said Strachan, a returning starter. “There's no selfishness or anything, and we have trust with each other. Like Mr. Chase always says, ‘play to your strengths.’”

Will that be enough in the final weeks of the season for the Falcons to take their second state title in three seasons? That will have to play out.

The uncertainty of whether the Falcons could contend, though, was wiped away long ago.

“This team, we’re called the Crazy 8 for a reason,” Williams said. “We embrace everything. We love each other very much on and off the court and we just have fun together. We could be making jokes and texting each other and messing around, and then when it comes game time, boom, like the switch flips, and it's business and we're ready to go. We're ready to win. We're focused.

“I think that's what's so fun about this team, is that even though we went through all of this time of uncertainty and everything, like, we had each other's backs. We just really stuck together. Basically, we didn't turn our backs on each other.”

For his part, Chase downplayed his role in all this. Maybe the undefeated record is a bit surprising, but not shocking, he said. He simply needed to keep the Falcons’ flight on a straight path.

“One of our things is LEO … Love Each Other,” Chase said. “I think this group, they do really, truly care for each other. They want the best for each other no matter what.”