CHURCHILL — Jeff Bellach recently carded his first career hole-in-one.
The Manhattan Christian boys and girls basketball coach sank his tee shot on the Par-3 14th at Cottonwood Hills Golf Club on a rare day off this summer. Bellach, who also helps coach the Manhattan Christian golf teams, spent May and June putting nearly 8,000 miles on his car, traveling across the country to various basketball camps and tournaments.
Manhattan Christian hosts a tournament in early June where the Eagles’ boys were able to see competition from last year’s Class C state tournament – Scobey, Fairview, and Belt. Bellach led the Eagles to an undefeated weekend.
“They were good games, competitive games,” Bellach said of the contests with Scobey and Fairview. “It’s great to play those teams in the summer. Those Eastern C teams really look forward to coming down, and it’s great to have them.”
Manhattan Christian followed that up with a superb showing at the Whitworth team camp in Spokane. The Eagles went 8-0, defeating teams such as Kalispell Glacier and large Spokane area schools. The larger schools typically play with more physicality, something Bellach believes has toughened up his squad.
“It’s been great for us,” Bellach said. “It tends to be more physical (at Whitworth) anyway, because a lot of the times they have college kids refereeing, and the nature of the team-camp setting. We’ve learned to embrace it. It is more physical when you’re playing against those bigger schools, and they have a little more depth, few more guys they can throw out there. That was a challenge, but I feel like the guys did a really good job of understanding that, embracing that, and understanding we need to play a little more like that sometimes.”
The boys team graduated four seniors off last year’s Class C runner-up, but they boast the depth needed to continue their dominance of District 11C. Bellach expects Sam Leep and Caidin Hill, who won the State C golf individual championship to help Manhattan Christian to the team title, to make larger impacts this season.
While Hill was a contributor at times last season, he’ll be depended upon more this season to facilitate the Eagles’ potent offense. The most improved player for Manhattan Christian may be Leep. Leep attended the Montana Tech High Potential camp at the end of June and was named the MVP of the tournament.
“Sam offensively, for his size, is so crafty and so good. He shot it really well this summer, and I think he and Josiah (Amunrud) both benefit from some of the focus that goes on Caleb (Bellach), but they also do a very good job of taking the right shots,” Bellach said.
Shot selection has been a focus that Bellach has implored his team to work on.
“We have a lot of guys who can score, so there’s no reason for us to force stuff. I was happy with that and the way we progressed through that, being able to trust our teammates, take good shots and give up shots for better shots for our teammates,” he said.
Manhattan Christian’s boys team once again looks like it will be a contender for the Class C state title. A big reason for that, Bellach says, is the culture of success and commitment that Manhattan Christian has formed during Bellach’s tenure.
“The kids that are in junior high have seen it and they notice it,” Bellach said. “We try to make a point of making them understand that that’s what it takes. We also make a point of making them understand that if we want to take that next step and be on the top, there’s things we have to do different, there’s things we have to do the same. Einstein’s rule, do the same thing over and over, get the same results. We have to understand that if we want to take that next step, we’ve got to make a few more changes, adopt a few more habits to get us over that hump.”
The proverbial hump Bellach references is that of the Arlee Warriors, the two-time defending Class C state champions, both coming at the expense of Manhattan Christian.
Manhattan Christian and Arlee have enjoyed a fierce but respectful rivalry over the past couple of seasons. The Eagles and Warriors have gotten together for scrimmages over the summers, including one just before the Eagles took off for the Whitworth team camp this June.
“The kids have really enjoyed the rivalry. Obviously we want to be able to step up and knock them off,” Bellach said. “We had success against them early when I first started coaching, and then the last couple of years it’s been them. Obviously Will (Mestesth) and Phillip (Malatare) brought a lot to the table that they’re going to have to replace, but they have the same kind of tradition and culture going on. They played well when we played them this summer. To be honest, we didn’t give them our best shot. I think there’s a few mental things we’ve got to get over. We’ve talked about that, we’ve laid some ground work for some things that we’re going to do to help get over that hump, and I truly believe that we will.
“It’s great to play them, though. Everyone gets excited about it. I think the progress we’ve made since then, even in the summer, on the court and with our mental approach will pay off when we get to see them again.”
Bellach has built a foundation of success with the boys team, but this will be his first season as the girls head coach. At the end of June, Bellach took the girls to Eastern Washington for a team camp.
“That was kind of the first time we were all together,” Bellach said. “We played pretty well, went 4-2. The two we lost were really close. I felt like we could have got victories in those. I was happy with the commitment of the kids this summer.”
The Manhattan Christian girls team will likely boast three girls standing six feet or taller – senior Kelsey Heidema, junior Kelly Van Kirk and freshman Kiersten Van Kirk. The mix of length and athleticism that Heidema and the Van Kirk sisters possess will give opposing offenses fits. Heidema recently had offseason knee surgery, but is recovering well.
While the Van Kirk sisters are terrific volleyball players, they have shared their excitement about the possibilities in basketball with Bellach, too.
“They had a great week at Whitworth. I kind of challenged them a little bit. Both of them – Kiersten because she’s so young, throwing her right in there and getting her to mix it up, and Kelly, making her more versatile, getting her inside a little more than she’s used to,” Bellach said. “(Kelly) hasn’t always liked the physical play, but I got her in there, she got a little taste of it and realized it wasn’t so bad, so we’ll keep building on that.”
Building is what Bellach has become best at. He’s built a perennial Class C power on the boys side and will now look to do the same with the girls program this winter, seeking to duplicate the success he recently enjoyed on the golf course.