Hardin broke through for its first Class A boys basketball state championship in 21 years when it defeated Billings Central at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman last March.
The Bulldogs return the majority of their roster, including junior tandem Famous LeftHand and Cayden Redfield. LeftHand averaged 17.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, while Redfield added 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds.
The two were superb defensively in the Bulldogs’ run to the state title, each averaging more than two steals per game, and they again have Hardin as an early favorite this season.
“(LeftHand), he’s a whole different type of animal. He’s just relentless in everything he does,” Hardin head coach Andrew RoundFace said. “He’s going to outwork anybody who tries to go against him. … Locking down the best player that any other team can have, we’re going to put him on them. He likes that challenge of trying to stop them. Having Cayden on the press, it’s just a nightmare. He’s quick, he has the reach for everything.”
RoundFace knows it can be tough to stay on top, and he doesn’t want his team to be satisfied with just one title. Over the summer, he saw the intensity ratchet up another notch, especially on the defensive end where LeftHand’s impact has rubbed off on his teammates.
“It started a little last year, but you could really see it this summer,” RoundFace said of the defensive intensity. “Everybody wanted a shot at the best player on the other team to see who could shut them down best. It’s been a huge joy for me to watch that.”
The biggest challenger to Hardin’s throne may come from within the Eastern division. Billings Central has finished runner-up three consecutive seasons and returns one of the state’s most dynamic playmakers in Chrishon Dixon, who led the Rams in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
Central and Hardin had tremendous battles in the regular season and postseason last year and RoundFace expects more of the same this season.
“(Coach Jim) Stergar does an excellent job exposing our weaknesses,” RoundFace said. “(The rivalry) has been awesome, especially this past season going in to so many overtimes and then finally getting them in the state championship game. I have nothing but respect for that program. Stergar does an amazing job year in, year out.”
There will be challengers out of the Western A to Hardin’s title defense, too. Hamilton returns four of its top five scorers from last year’s team that finished third with only one loss. The Broncs will rely heavily on their experience to replace the loss of all-state forward Carter Kearns.
”We’ve got a lot of experience coming back. It’s always tough to replace seniors, especially ones like (Kearns), who really propelled our team and are great leaders,” Hamilton head coach Travis Blome said. “We’re looking forward to our seniors this year stepping up and taking over that role of leadership, not only on the court but off the court, too.”
The Southwestern A is deep and talented, as teams such as Dillon, Frenchtown and Butte Central will all compete for the title. Butte Central enters as one of the favorites to come out of the West, largely because the Maroons return every single player to their roster after making a run to the state tournament last season.
The Maroons are loaded with weapons on the offensive end, but Cade Holter has stood out as one of the most versatile players in the conference. Holter led the team in steals and assists, while also being the fourth-leading scorer and rebounder.
“(Holter) is so competitive. He’s such a great leader for us. He’s got a motor that never stops,” Butte Central head coach Brodie Kelly said. “He makes plays on both sides of the ball. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he’s a great rebounder, great timing. He’s relentless getting his hand on the ball. He’s a guy that just makes plays. He can get to the rim and finish in a variety of ways. This is his fourth year of playing varsity, so we’re going to rely heavily on his leadership.”
The Class A basketball season starts as early as Friday and culminates with the state tournament March 7-9, 2019 at Great Falls.