BILLINGS — The past two seasons ended in sorrow for the Billings Central girls basketball team.
In 2021, the Rams dropped a double-overtime thriller to Havre in the Class A championship game. Last season was a virtual rerun, with Central losing again to the Blue Ponies in the the title contest.
In each of those years the Rams were led by star guard Mya Hansen and a slew of talented upperclassmen. After last season Central lost Hansen — who's now at Division I Boise State — and six others to graduation, making the prospects of another run a title this year a dubious prospect.
At least on paper.
But if there's one thing coach Jetton Ailes and the Rams don't do it's waste time and worry about what might have been. After Friday's 64-49 victory over archrival Laurel at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark — a win that was made possible largely by the exploits of two freshmen and a sophomore — Central remained unbeaten and put its stamp on MTN Sports' No. 1 ranking in Class A.
"We don't look back," Ailes said. "Win, lose or draw, there's ways to have success. I think this group is continuing the tradition and continuing to build on that foundation. They're a fun group that believes in each other, and that's all we can ask."
(To watch highlights of Central's victories over Laurel in both the boys and girls games on Friday, see the video above.)
In its history, Central has appeared in 12 state championship games and has won seven titles, so the program is as decorated as they come in Class A. Yet Ailes and the Rams have no inclination to rebuild. Friday was further proof of that.
Yes, the team is ultimately led by its group of veterans, and seniors Lauren Dull, Lily Bland, Ruby Gray and Jessa Larson all made big plays at big moments against previously unbeaten and No. 3-ranked Laurel. But if you looked on the court during some of the most consequently moments of the second half you would have seen freshmen Kamryn Reinker and Annika Stergar and sophomore Coral Old Bull getting key minutes and making key contributions.
Reinker, a first-year player who stands 6-feet and whose on-court demeanor (and skill set) is like that of a senior, scored a game-high 16 points. Her reverse layup midway through the fourth quarter gave Central a 53-47 advantage.
Stergar, the daughter of Central boys coach Jim Stergar, made three key baskets, including one in the fourth. And Old Bull, the daughter of the late Elvis Old Bull, one of the state's true high school hoops legends, had five of her nine points in the final period.
The Rams trailed by seven at halftime, but led 49-40 after Old Bull, who wears No. 52 in honor of her father, converted off the glass early in the fourth.
"Missing those seniors (from last year) is a huge loss," Dull said. "But now we have other people showing themselves and showing the talents they have. Each person brings their own thing to the table, which makes us successful. We have girls hitting different shots every night and we have different top scorers every game. It's great that each person can step up in their own way."
Ailes' philosophy as it pertains to Central's youngest players is simple.
"Put them in uncomfortable situations," she said. "So far they're responding very well, and that's going to help us down the stretch."
Could it be that these different-looking Rams are poised for another deep postseason run? That remains to be seen, but they're looking quite comfortable now. At the very least it's no longer a dubious prospect.
As it stands, an eclectic mix of youth and experience is powering Central at the top of the Class A heap.
"It's just a matter of them believing," Ailes said. "We might not have the best basketball players, but we've got kids that are going to compete, and that's all I can ask for."