GREAT FALLS — Kellen Hall knows traveling for basketball games this time of year is a good problem to have. Only a handful of teams continue their season into March, and Hall’s Heart Butte Warriors are one of the final eight that will be competing in the Class C boys state tournament.
But traveling is nothing new for these road warriors.
“I believe it’s going on 22 days, 23 maybe,” Hall said.
For nearly three weeks this winter, the Heart Butte boys and girls basketball teams, along with their fans, have been forced to hotel living due to winter storms and road closures along the Rocky Mountain Front, particularly on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“It happened to us twice last year when we went to Great Falls to play (Great Falls Central), we ended up having to stay in Conrad,” said Hall. “This year we didn’t even try to get on the road, we stayed in Great Falls (after our game Feb. 10.) We went to our usual destination at the Crystal Inn, they treat us really good up there. We didn’t expect it to last this long, three weeks.”
Winter storm warnings and watches have come and gone over the past two months, but February’s weather truly threw a wrench into the Warriors’ plans. After defeating Great Falls Central 63-46 on Saturday, Feb. 10, the team cozied up to hotel living that evening before traveling as far as Browning the following day.
Less than 24 hours later, Mother Nature again reared her head in Heart Butte, dumping snow that left roads hazardous, if not closed, and vehicles snowed in. In fact, the Warriors’ buses were unable to deliver the boys and girls teams to the District 10C tournament in Shelby, but parents rose to the occasion and shuttled athletes more than an hour to the Coyotes’ gymnasium.
Heart Butte’s boys won their first two district tournament games by a combined 114 points, setting up an appearance in Saturday’s championship, but leaving all of Friday as downtime.
“That was really tough because Shelby isn’t a real big town. We had a whole day to kill on that Friday waiting for our championship (on Saturday night),” said Hall. “We sat in our hotel rooms the whole day. I told them to take naps to try and preserve some energy, get some rest, but I think that maybe hurt us in the long run, too. Sitting in a hotel room for, I think it was 12 hours, really didn’t do us any good.”
You wouldn’t know it from Saturday’s result. Heart Butte blasted Sunburst by 18 points in the highly anticipated championship game, taking the league’s No. 1 seed into the Northern C divisional tournament. But weather once again hindered travel, putting Hall and the Warriors, along with many of their fans, back on the road to Great Falls.
Great Falls Central graciously offered its gym for the Warriors to practice, and Heart Butte didn’t disappoint the fans that braved the roads, keeping its undefeated season alive by capturing the Northern C crown Friday night, again defeating Sunburst.
Though it doesn’t show up in the box scores or stat books, Hall has been most pleased with his team’s poise, attitude and behavior during the treacherous stretch of missed school, home cooking and time with family.
“That’s actually the biggest challenge, not having the normalcy of going home, being with family and sitting with family, or reviewing with family what happens with your competition. The other challenge would be creating curfew every night,” Hall said. “With young kids in a hotel room every night, they want to have some fun, but these kids are a good group of kids and they actually, I don’t have to babysit too much. They’re really mature, young adults.”
“These kids are some of the most mature kids I’ve been around. They have their eye on the prize,” he continued. “I remember in my day, you would want to go off and do things, try to even sneak away, but these kids haven’t done any of that kind of stuff. They’ve been going to bed when they’re supposed to, waking up when they’re supposed to, going to battle when they’re supposed to. I can’t say enough about them. They’re really mature young adults, and that’s actually some of the things we’ve been working on, we’re going to become men out of this.”
Hall and the team added to their travels on Monday, heading south on I-15 toward Butte, site of the weekend’s state tournament. The Warriors open play in the final game of the day Thursday, an 8 p.m. contest against the winner of Monday’s challenge game between Plains and Manhattan Christian.
The final leg of what Hall called “a business vacation,” only three wins stand between Heart Butte and its goal of an undefeated season and the program’s first state championship since 2001.
“To be honest, it’s been making us more hungry for the fact we’ve been overlooked. We know that we don’t really get much respect in that aspect, when it comes to our exposure, and we actually like it also because it’s making us come under the radar,” said Hall. “All year that’s all we hear about, we hear about Arlee, Melstone, Scobey, Manhattan Christian, and we’re just kind of thrown to the wayside. To tell you the truth, it kind of makes my guys hungrier.
“It’s basically ‘What are we playing for?’ Through the trauma that these kids have been through, our motto has been to basically show our passion before the game, stay hungry and focused, stay humble. But also with all the trauma we’ve been going through, it’s what we play for, who we’re playing for. A lot of these kids want to pay tribute to a lot of people they’ve lost and a lot of people back home. They keep that in mind.”
If these road warriors capture that elusive state title on Saturday night, not even Mother Nature can dampen the celebration. Even if it is in the lobby of a hotel.