BILLINGS — Trapped in the midst of a long losing streak — and that’s where the Roundup Panthers girls basketball team is — can seem like a hopeless place to be.
Hopeless is not where the Panthers are, though. True, the Panthers haven’t won since they defeated Malta in the third-place game of the 2021 Class B state tournament, a span of 45 games.
But hopeless? No. There’s plenty of belief, in fact, that if the corner the Panthers need to turn isn’t in sight, it’s at least attainable.
“Things have started to click quite a bit,” senior Grace Jelle said before a recent practice. “Everything’s starting to run smoother.”
Jelle is one of just two seniors on a youth-dominated roster, with Deserae Toombs being the other. Both players at one point took a year off from basketball for differing reasons. Jelle skipped her sophomore season for family reasons, she said. Toombs played as a sophomore, but spent her junior year as one of the managers for the boys basketball team.
It says something that both decided to return knowing full well what they were choosing to be a part of. It definitely wasn’t the winning that brought them back.
“I really just missed going out there and playing basketball,” said Toombs, who recently signed with Montana State Northern in Havre to run track and cross country.
As for Jelle, it went a bit deeper than that.
“It’s just something I feel I should stick out and keep putting my time into,” she said. “Just for the younger girls to realize it’s something you should stick to, keep putting time into the program to better it.”
Jelle and Toombs have been a blessing for Zach Bymaster, whose varsity roster is filled out by one junior (Cheyenne Dusky), four sophomores, one freshman and two eighth-graders.
The second-year coach began more than a couple answers to questions with an “I’m not going to lie …” opening, signifying the obvious. Long losing streaks are painful and some players understandably no longer want to be a part of it.
So here the Panthers are, essentially in rebuild mode just three years removed from a senior-heavy team that won a state-tournament trophy. It’s meant encouraging girls to participate, teaching basketball on the fly, sometimes going so basic as to going over the rules or instructing players how to check into a game.
Last season the Panthers scored 20 points just once and were held to single digits four times. They were even shut out by Wolf Point the second game of the year.
“I’m not going to lie,” Bymaster began, “it was a rough couple days after that. I mean, we couldn’t wish a shot in that day, and we tried really, really hard.”
That’s been the emphasis since. Keep trying really, really hard. After graduating high school in 2010 playing for Broadview-Lavina, Bymaster played briefly at Rocky Mountain College before a knee injury shortened his own career.
Along the way, he picked up two major tenets from RMC head coach Bill Dreikosen: Attitude and effort. And that’s what Bymaster is preaching now, hoping everything else follows those foundations.
“Even when shots aren't falling or, you know, we have a few more turnovers or whatever it is, the quit isn't there anymore,” Bymaster said. “Our kids have kind of toughened up a little bit. They've gotten a little bit more resilient. And it's just, you know, it's cool in that aspect to see we're not being negative all the time.
“I've had a lot of parents come up to me like, ‘Man, you’ve got a lot of patience this year.’ But the kids look happy. They look like they're having fun. It’s coming around. We're a very young team. We just are. But it's hard to teach winning when you've never won before.”
Until the big W’s come, the Panthers are focusing on little victories. Stick together. Get the ball up the court. Try and win a quarter. Then maybe the next one.
They’ve topped 20 points five times in nine of their games this season, including one 50-point game and another in which they scored 33 points.
Columbus held Roundup to just eight points in the Panthers’ most recent outing, but the Panthers feel they are well ahead of where they were last season when they turned the ball over on 88% of their possessions, according to Bymaster.
“I think we all know we need to stick with it, with us being young to stay in the program for a couple more years,” said Hallie Hofer, one of the four sophomores and a team captain along with Jelle. “We know there’s a good chance for us. It can be a little disappointing not to win as many games as we want to, but I think in the long run, going through this will be worth it.”
Music to Bymaster’s ears.
He’s coached many of the Panthers players in junior high and knows the make-up and commitment they have. In touting there’s a future for his team, Bymaster points to a program like Huntley Project, which didn’t win a game in 2020-21 and is now MTN Sports' No. 1-ranked Class B team.
Through it all, the players see progress. Jelle said the players enjoy each other’s company, they feel community support, and, yes, they still do have fun despite the lack of wins.
“We do our best to stick together, even through these losses,” she said. “It’s amazing, still having our students actually come out and cheer. It’s amazing to still have our parents come out and cheer. What we get out of it is really just a sense of pride that we keep coming back and we keep fighting through it.”
Toombs acknowledged this year might not be the Panthers’ year, either. But, if she could have a hand in helping turn things around, the pain of all that losing would be worth it to her.
“Who knows, this year, we might not win a game,” she said. “Who knows … knock on wood. But say next year, the small little things that Grace and I tried to help them with, maybe the wheels finally start linking up, the light switch turns on and it all comes together next year.
“Or it could happen three or four years down the line. If things just come together at some point I can look and go, hey, that’s because of me and my other teammates. We helped set that up. I would be so proud.”
More music to Bymaster’s ears. Players buying into something beyond themselves, trying to keep the program afloat to make it better for someone else. Players who keep showing up, no matter the hardships or jokes made at their expense.
“It's trying to invest in the young kids to bring them up while being grateful for the seniors and our junior that we still have and being like, thank you for stepping up and being leaders and in going through this and hopefully being the change that sets us back on the right right track to being very competitive within our district,” said Bymaster, who is also the school’s athletic direct and junior high math teacher.
“You know, I’m just proud of them. It takes a lot of courage to come in and do what they do (every day).”
That alone seems like a very big win.