John Cislo always believed his senior class would be “pretty good,” by the time they reached the end of the 2017-2018 season, but even he couldn’t have imagined a more perfect ending than last season’s state championship run.
“They were a really good group of kids. They had a lot of adversity from the time they were freshmen and sophomores all the way through, and for them to be rewarded for working hard and believing, being part of the program and changing the direction we were in from when those kids came into the program, that was the best part of the run,” said Cislo.
Nearly eight years after Cislo coached a Josh Huestis-led Rustler team to the program’s second state championship in as many years, Cislo again stood at mid-court of Billings’ MetraPark at Rimrock Auto Arena, trophy in hand. Much like that night in 2010, Cislo soaked up the moment, enjoying the celebration with a large group of seniors that helped re-shape the program.
Gone are co-MVPs Garrison Rothwell and Sam Vining, as well as key contributor Jake Olsen. The three were the only Rustlers to average double-digit points last season, scoring 64 percent of CMR’s points, but Cislo returns a talented junior class that saw the floor during the Rustlers’ run.
“Hopefully the biggest thing they’ve learned the last few years is that you have to work hard throughout the entire season. What happens in December doesn’t mean anything for February, March,” Cislo said. “I think and hope that our kids understand that you have to get better every week, you have to come hard at practice and you have to practice hard every week. The goal is the end of the year and not the beginning of the year.”
Cislo expects a rotation of six seniors and a pair of juniors to lead the way this season, but admits each has strides to make in their individual games.
“Bryce Depping, he’s kind of a hard-nosed kid that plays hard and can get under your skin. He’s the kid that coaches hate to play against, but would love to have on their team and thank God he’s on our team,” said Cislo. “We have Caleb Currington who came off our bench really early. He was a new kid from California, so he came off the bench and was just as good, if not better, than our point guard last year. We have him back and he has to improve his shooting, though, after hitting around 25 percent. He would hit them in practice, he just didn’t hit them in a game, but when we got to the divisional and state tournament nobody guarded him and I think he went 5 for 7 (from the 3-point line) during the two-week run at divisionals and state.”
“Russell Gagne shot, I want to say 88 percent from the free throw line last year. We expect him to step up his scoring this year,” Cislo continued. “So those are three seniors that have a lot of experience from last year. We had a JV team that was pretty successful last year, too. … Brendan Lindseth is about a 6-foot-5 senior, he’s kind of going to have that same role as (Jake) Olsen last year, a big man that can shoot, step out and play on the perimeter. … We have Cason Taylor who was a hard-nosed defensive back on the football team that plays the same way on the basketball court. He’s a tough kid that will go get rebounds, steals and play solid defense. He can help us out quite a bit. We have a junior right now by the name of Keegan Barnes who is probably one of our best athletes. Lefty, strong, physical, but he needs to work on his outside game also.”
While the Rustlers seek scoring, Missoula Hellgate brings back plenty of its own.
“Listen to these names — you have Bridger Deden, you have Dylan Holst and then Worster — so there are some other players with (Worster) that know how to play the game and if they can share the ball and learn to play together I think they can be one heck of a team,” Cislo said.
“As a basketball player, there is not much more he can do because he can do everything as a basketball player,” Missoula Hellgate coach Jeff Hays said of Worster, a future Montana Grizzly. “I honestly would like to see him catch the ball ready to shoot more aggressively from the 3-point line. There are a lot of times he works so hard to get us into what we need and he has to work really hard to get the ball back because he’s such a focal point of every team. There are times that he is open, guys find him and I think he’s surprised a little bit, so I’m hoping he can move with more assertiveness off the ball and catch that ball ready to score, and we have to do a better job of finding him. His overall leadership, he loves to lead by example, it’s a great example to follow, but sometimes I think we could use more from him vocally, too.”
Worster’s 19.8 points per game are tops in the state amongst returners, while Deden and Holst combined for nearly 16 a year ago. The Knights should have little trouble scoring, but it’s their defense that could give opponents fits.
“We have length, obviously, where we could put a lineup out there where our smallest would be 6-foot-3. Our guards are long, our wings are long and we have a 6-08 post player and all of our guys can run and move a little bit,” said Hays. “What helps with that, defensively, if we can play hard and smart, do some of the gritty things, we could really disrupt teams on the defensive end and hopefully create opportunities where we can get out in transition and take advantage of numbers.”
Missoula Hellgate has been a perennial power on the Class AA boys basketball courts, consistently competing for trophies, including first- and second-place finishes in 2013 and 2014, with numerous consolation game appearances since.
Carrying on that tradition and playing for those that wore the Knights’ jerseys in the past, is something Hays believes can motivate his team.
“I hope it’s something that our guys recognize as an opportunity. We have missed out the last two years playing Saturday night, losing tough games Saturday morning, but these are the same guys that have experienced that and I hope to use that as motivation to get back to a Saturday night,” said Hays. “I was in high school, it’s been 15 or 20 years now, but it was three straight years and there’s no better feeling then extending the season as long as you can. That’s our goal every year, extend the season as long as you can. That means if you lose the first game at the state tournament, let’s work for the consolation game Saturday night. If you’re fortunate enough to win your first two games, let’s get to Saturday night. I’m hoping that we have those aspirations and we’re willing to put forth that effort to get there.”
Cislo and Hays agree Missoula Sentinel could be a sneaky team in the Western AA, “A really young team with a lot of freshmen that played and I think they’re primed for a run,” according to Cislo, while last year’s runner-up Bozeman will likely contend for a trophy again come March.
“I think Bozeman is going to be tough with (Ryan) Simpson and (Ryan) Lonergan, there’s a lot of experience back with those kids,” said Cislo. “Simpson was hurt most of the year last year, really didn’t get a full season, but that’s a 6-foot-6 kid that can shoot and Lonergan is probably one of the better posts in our conference. I like him. I like the Bison, I hate to say that, but I like the Bison.”
“Great Falls High just knows how to play,” added Hays. “They’re a little thin in terms of numbers, but in basketball you only need five. They have basketball players all over the floor. I think what’s interesting this year, every team has a strength and every team has a weakness. Billings West has talented guards, but maybe lacks a traditional post player. Billings Skyview has a traditional post player and I wouldn’t count out Kevin Morales developing some talented guards. Bozeman, they’ve been in it every year for the last decade, so Wes Holmquist will have them in position, too.
One common theme in the Class AA boys basketball ranks is the familiar faces, like Cislo and Hays, on the benches. Many of the coaches have mentored their programs for years, creating fun chess matches between longtime friends and rivals each weekend.
“I enjoy it, it’s a good group of people. There’s a reason why those coaches have stuck around, they’re good coaches and good people, in it for the right reasons,” said Hays. “That’s something I take pride in as a coach myself and I don’t want to let down the other coaches across the state because I do feel like they’re a good group of coaches and more importantly they’re better people. That’s why they are still around.”