BILLINGS – It’s one of the great turnarounds in recent memory. The Great Falls CMR boys basketball team won four games during the 2015-16 season. Two years later, the Rustlers hoisted the state championship trophy on the MetraPark floor.
“It was unbelievable,” said Sam Vining, who is back in Billings this week as a member of the Midland Roundtable Montana all-star team. “We’ve played together since the fourth grade, so it was something we’ve always talked about, so to see it come true was awesome.”
That’s a common story in Montana, but few teams actually look back to the elementary years for guidance.
“Once we realized what we had to do and what it took, and remembered how we all played together when we were younger, I think that was a huge part of it,” said Garrison Rothwell, the other Rustler on this year’s Montana all-star squad.
The most ironic part is where their other inspiration came from. On Jan. 9, Great Falls High defeated their crosstown rivals by 32 points – and something suddenly clicked at CMR.
“We started to remember what that was like last year and the year before that, all the losing again,” said Vining. “We just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“It put a chip on our shoulder, and we knew we had to give a lot more,” Rothwell added.
The Bison’s big win basically directly led to a CMR state title. The Rustlers rolled after that, including a state semifinal win over Great Falls High, before claiming the school’s first championship since Josh Huestis stood on the same floor eight years prior. You’d think the now-NBA star would have shown some love to this year’s group, but they’re still waiting.
Asked if Huestis said anything on Twitter after March’s championship:
“No!” replied Vining emphatically. “I wish he did. C’mon man!”
“I didn’t see one. It hurt a little bit. I thought we’d get something,” Rothwell added with a wry smile.
Maybe Huestis is just waiting for them to match one more of his accomplishments – sweep Wyoming in this weekend’s series. Montana’s guys have won 12 straight over Wyoming. They tip at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Sheridan, Wyo., with the girls scheduled for 5:30 p.m. The times are the same Saturday night at Rocky Mountain College.