BILLINGS – As a storyteller, covering a state tournament is always a challenge.
At the outset, the story seems simple – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But sometimes the story becomes about something bigger than winning and losing.
Billings Central came into the State A boys basketball tournament with heavy hearts and a purpose. Chloe Lai, a fourth grader at St. Francis middle school, had passed away earlier in the week. The Rams were dedicating their tournament to her.
“We put her initials with a cross on our shoe, and we went to her classroom and gave them some posters and signed them,” said Central senior Jae Hugs. “Just saying we’re going to be here with you throughout the tournament. We did what we could to help ease the pain in that school.”
Central had lost the past two State A title games. This time, the Rams would win their first two games easily, putting them back in the championship for a third straight year. Hardin, meanwhile, cruised to the final for the first time since 1997.
The storyline was set – two Eastern A rivals playing for the title in front of a capacity crowd inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman. But there was something else – something that would resonate long after the final buzzer.
For the first time in Montana high school history, two brothers would line up opposite each other in a state championship game. Older brother Jae against Hardin sophomore Trae.
“What are the odds of brothers on different teams meeting in the title game?” asked Hardin head coach Andrew Round Face. “I should have bought a lottery ticket.”
Central head coach Jim Stergar understood the moment and made arrangements for Jae and Trae to be introduced last in the pregame ceremony.
“Brian Michelotti was the guy in charge and right away I just texted Brian and I just said we need to do this,” sais Stergar. “We need to get these two lined up with each other, and if we can get them last, I think it would really be a special moment for that family and for each one of those boys.”
“I thought it was a lot of hype with them playing in the regular season,” said Round Face. “I mean, you can only imagine how much bigger the hype got when we both made it to the championship game. It was just unreal.”
The two embraced at midcourt, and Jae leaned in to tell his younger brother some final words of encouragement.
“I remember him saying, ‘No matter what happens after this game, I’ll still love you,'” Trae said.
“When I gave him a hug, I said, ‘No matter what happens tonight, I’m really proud of you,'” echoed Jae. “I said, ‘You make me so proud and I am so proud to be your brother and I’ll always love you.’ And just being Trae, he is just like ‘Ok, yup, thank you.'”
“It was pretty tough seeing him on the other side, lining up against us,” admitted Justin Hugs, Jae and Trae’s father.
Justin was overwhelmed by the moment and by the words of his oldest son during their pregame embrace: “He just said, ‘No matter what the outcome is, ‘Dad, I really love you. Thank you for everything and being there for me. I’m proud to call you my dad.’ We’ve put in a lot of work and he just said, ‘I love you with all my heart.'”
As expected, the game was hard-fought, and in the end Hardin won its first state championship in 21 years. The impact of that night and what it meant to not just his family, but the entire Hardin community, was not lost on Jae.
“It would’ve been nice if we would have won, but the way things ended was for a reason,” the Central forward said. “And obviously there’s something behind that reason. I’ll forever be grateful for that. Words can’t explain how awesome it was.”
“After everybody was cleared out of the gym, me, Trae and Jae, we all hugged in the hallways,” said Justin. “I told them that I was proud of them. I said, ‘No matter what, you guys are brothers. We are all family, we are all one, and we all stick together.'”