Bigfork won its second Class B boys basketball title in five years last season, and the Vikings are among the favorites once again this year.
Bigfork returns the majority of its roster and will feature seven seniors, but the team will have a different look on the floor than it did last year. The Vikings lost 6-foot-7 Beau Santistevan and will replace his height with speedy guards.
“We are focusing on reinventing ourselves a little bit,” Bigfork head coach Sam Tudor said. “We’re focusing on getting better, just the same as we did last year. Ultimately, we’ve convinced ourselves it’s a different team with a few different dynamics. We’re substituting speed for height. You have to work it out before it’s running on all four cylinders and you can get excited about it.”
While the Vikings might be different stylistically, the faces that get the job done will be familiar. Anders Epperly and Logan Gilliard were strong contributors in last year’s title run and will be relied upon to pick up the scoring vacated by Santistevan.
Epperly and Gilliard each bring more than just scoring to the table. Epperly has been the facilitator for the Vikings the past few seasons, getting his teammates involved with easy baskets. Gilliard was Bigfork’s leader in 3-point makes last season, but he also brings a physical toughness on the defensive end.
“Epperly and (Gilliard) will probably carry a heavy part of our scoring load, but we have some kids around them, too,” Tudor said. “There’s a reason Anders has so many assists over his career. He’s always made his teammates better. He’ll probably score a few more points this year, but I don’t expect he’ll quit sharing the ball anytime soon.
“(Gilliard) is inside-out. He’s a great athlete. Great shot, you don’t want to leave him open. He kind of does it all for us.”
Over the past 11 seasons, Bigfork is the only team outside of the Northern B to win a state title. The Northern B will have a strong cast of contenders once again, led by the recently crowned football champion in Fairfield.
The Eagles finished third in the Northern B divisional tournament last season, but return three starters, led by Dawson Allen and Keeley Bake. However, as head coach Jordan Ratliff points out, Fairfield has more than just two weapons on offense. The Eagles had five players average more than eight points per game last season.
“It’s great for us because then defenses and other teams don’t know who exactly to key on,” Ratliff said. “(Bake) is a great player and he’s a focal point for other defenses, but when they put two guys on him, we have other guys that can get to the basket and shoot the rock. It’s a nice luxury to have.”
The Eagles’ depth is also a strong point, allowing the team to play the type of defense Ratliff prefers.
“Our defensive philosophy is helter-skelter, under-control type of defense, move around, hands up, just pretty much go crazy on the defensive end, then also push the ball,” said Ratliff. “Having those six, seven, eight guys, then we can press and play that up-tempo style that we like to play.”
Ratliff also touched on the depth of Class B this season but ultimately pointed to Bigfork as the favorite.
“(Bigfork) is well-coached, they’re fundamental. They have confidence when they play,” Ratliff said. “They’re big, they have good guards. You can’t really key on one spot, one position, one player. You’ve got to beat them as a team. It will definitely take a whole entire season of getting better to try and give them a run for their money.”
Bigfork will be tested throughout the regular season. Anaconda gave the Vikings a run last year, but after the graduation of Braxton Hill and Trent Mikalatos, the Copperheads might not have the firepower to keep up with the Vikings. Missoula Loyola and Deer Lodge return strong teams, as well. Even as the favorites, it’s the season-long process that Tudor has his focus on.
“We get a target on our back sometimes, so it’s important we keep our guard up,” Tudor said. “Yeah, we’re taking it one day at a time, but ultimately our goal, and it was last year, too, but ultimately we were playing the best ball at the end of the season, and that was key to our success.”
Bigfork opens its title defense with a rematch of last year’s championship game. The Vikings will travel to Shelby to face the Coyotes on Dec. 7. The Class B season begins as early as Friday and ends with the state tournament March 7-9, 2019 in Belgrade.