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Playing from behind: Billings West making up for lost time

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Posted at 2:00 PM, Jan 06, 2021

BILLINGS -- Co-state basketball champions in Class AA, Billings West's basketball girls aren't so much in the mood to share this time around.

The Bears won Friday night's semifinal 48-30 over Missoula Sentinel last March before the Montana High School Association announced that was as far as the tournament would go due to COVID-19 precautions. West would’ve played Helena Capital for the outright title that Saturday night.

Still, the Bears stitched another season to their championship banner hanging from the Golden Dome rafters and could be on track for back-to-back titles returning a dynamic, and maybe more dangerous, 2021 team.

"Having multi-sport athletes is just a great thing," West head coach Charlie Johnson told MTN Sports. "We have success coming from both volleyball and soccer programs. It just breeds success, so it’s been fun.”

That's a fact not lost on post player Kendell Ellis, who doubles as West's towering goalkeeper on the soccer field where she also owns a State AA championship.

“Everyone's just great athletes, we all mix well in the end," Ellis said. "We have soccer, basketball and volleyball, so it’s a mix of everything.”

The Bears bid farewell to seven basketball seniors and only have two on this year's roster (Ellis and guard Kaycee Rider). But they are a deep squad right down to some tenacious freshmen who figure to see plenty of varsity playing time. Safe to say the Bears should find plenty of fast-paced ways to score.

"We have a very athletic team so I think we can do all that stuff. I think it’s fun to get up and down the court and with high (defensive) pressure,” Ellis said.

“I like to run and gun," said Rider. "It’s easier, too ... easier for fast layups.”

With the later high school start this season — this is opening week — a lot of teams have more than 20 practices under the belt. But not the Bears, who were stuck on the shelf with contact tracing just as workouts opened in December.

“We were out the 9th (of December) and got back the 28th," Johnson said. "So we’re in practice nine right now.”

Johnson can only smile at that latest challenge. He's seen his share from his playing days at Billings Senior a couple decades ago to hoisting title trophies with the rival girls at West.

“I knew one day I did want to coach," Johnson said, "and I was coaching the (Senior) boys with (former head coach Jim) Stergar there for a couple years, and I was at Broadview for a couple years and the path just took me back to coaching at West. You know, I’ve loved it, every minute of it.”

“He’s awesome, I love him as a coach," Ellis said. "He makes us work hard, but he always makes sure we have fun at the end of the day, too.”

Rider shares the sentiment of her head coach, who wears his signature beard at mid-chest level but typically caves in allowing players to shave it if they deliver a state title.

“He’s the funnest one," she said, laughing. "... Mack (assistant coach Jody McIlvain) brings the defense, which is the hardest part. But we still love Mack.”

And these days, it's not just about basketball for Johnson.

“From the teaching, I love my staff and department. I love coming to work every day," Johnson continued. "And obviously, the athletes and the kids. I’m just going to do it until they kick me out.”

Which likely won't be anytime soon.