BRIDGER — Basketball fans in Bridger haven’t been this excited since 1998.
Twenty years ago the Scouts’ boys basketball team advanced to the Class C state championship game, finishing runner-up to Kremlin-Gildford. Earlier that fall, the Bridger girls captured the district championship and advanced to the Southern C divisional tournament. Then came the dry spell.
Hoops fans in Bridger hadn’t seen a state tournament run from the boys in 19 years until last year’s Scouts earned the No. 1 seed from the Southern C, earning a berth in the bracket at Montana State’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Ryan Zentner was the only senior on that squad, which went 0-2 in the tournament, leaving fans hungry for a return trip this year. The Scouts are off to a great start, defeating Park City in the district championship last weekend.
“It’s easier the first year when there aren’t expectations, you know, when you haven’t made it to state since 1998,” said second-year head coach Wes Kragt. “This year has been a lot more difficult, but what I tell my kids is, ‘Never let the expectations exceed your effort.’ As long as they’re putting in the effort day in and day out, that’s all you can really ask.”
“Yeah, they know,” Kragt continued, referencing the 19-year hiatus from the state tournament. “One of our mottos last year was, ‘Be phenomenal or be forgotten.’ Be the team that breaks that streak from 1998 or be forgotten. Credit to them for being able to get there.”
Kragt tries to push the credit toward the players, but the truth is, he deserves plenty himself. The 2009 Huntley Project graduate, who also coached the Scouts to the 6-Man football state championship game, took over the girls basketball program this winter, as well, guiding the Scouts to an 8-6 conference record and a shocking 39-36 win over favorite Harlowton in the District 6C championship game.
“We had a really good game plan going in for Plenty Coups (in the semifinals) and Harlowton, and we executed defensively exactly how we wanted. We struggled on offense at times, turned the ball over a little too much, but I really have to credit these girls, because when you get down in a big game like that, especially against the No. 5 team in the state, a lot of mindsets are, ‘Oh, we’re done.’ But we kept hanging around and hanging around,” said Kragt. “Jessica Adkins did a great job down low for us, she finished every time she got the ball to the basket. Emily (Adkins) hit two big 3s to give us the lead. That was unbelievable, because the girls hadn’t been out of districts since 2004, and the last time they won districts was in 1998, so it was pretty exciting to bring a little enjoyment to basketball, as far as the girls go, in Bridger.”
Two streaks broken after nearly two decades of disappointment for each Bridger program, and Kragt has played a significant role in each. He joined Twin Bridges’ Josh Keller in leading boys and girls programs to district titles last weekend, but admits the double duty doesn’t come without challenges. A physical education and health teacher by day, Kragt then leads four to five hours of practices between the boys and girls after school, an exhausting feat at times.
Hours aren’t the only trial for Kragt, who has a separate playbook for each program, which he is continually updating.
“They’re actually a lot different. I think you have to take your terminology and base it around what kids you have and what athletes you have,” he said. “My girls and boys are a lot different, so I had to write out a lot of scouting reports and get a lot of notes on the two. Once I got to the next practice I could read over what I needed to go through, things we needed to work on and what we needed to get done. I also have to credit my kids a lot. I also coach football, too, and my boys have been in practice since August, because we made the championship. They’re tired, but they’re working through it, and I have to give them all the credit, because that’s tough for a 16- to 18-year-old kid to practice every single day from August all the way through the divisional tournament. It’s been fun.”
But Kragt’s greatest challenge could still be down the road. If the Bridger boys advance from the Southern C divisional tournament in Laurel this weekend, which is a strong possibility, the boys and girls teams would take the court at separate tournaments 370 miles apart — the boys at the State C tournament in Butte, the girls at the Southern C divisional in Miles City.
It’s a good problem to have, no doubt, but a challenging one all the same.
“We have a couple things we’re trying to work out, but I don’t want to give a definite answer because I’m not exactly sure,” Kragt said of the plan if each team is playing. “If the boys make it to state, then I’m going to go to state. That was our ultimate goal, to get back to that state tournament. If the girls and boys are playing maybe at separate times, we’re working a couple things out where I might be able to take a plane back to coach the girls, but I’m not really sure. It’s kind of in the works right now. If they play at the same time, I’ll have to have my assistants step up and coach the girls. I’m getting films on Broadus and Ekalaka, so I’m trying to put game plans together to give them the best opportunity to succeed.”
Kragt figures those details will work themselves out if and when the time comes, but his focus is solely on the boys Southern C divisional this weekend. Bridger opens with Wibaux on Thursday evening, while Terry and Plenty Coups fill out the bottom half of the bracket. The girls team will offer support from the crowd, with the attention turning to their divisional by Sunday.
Whether one, both or neither advance, the seasons have already been considered a success by the Bridger faithful, which hopes all the extra hours, constant tweaking of playbooks and potentially being in two places at the same time, doesn’t wear on their head coach.
“I don’t know, I’m young and energetic, but at the same time it’s going to give me gray hairs pretty quick,” Kragt laughed.
Twenty years of waiting are well worth a few gray hairs.