Arlee has been king of Class C the past two seasons, but a lot has changed for the Warriors.
Gone are all-state guards Phillip Malatare and Will Mesteth, the catalysts for Arlee’s two title runs, but head coach Zanen Pitts brings back plenty of talent, as Malatare and Mesteth made up just half of the Warriors’ all-state players.
Greg Whitesell and Lane Johnson, both all-state, and first-team all-conference teammate Isaac Fisher were the three starters beside Malatare and Mesteth in last season’s state championship game against Manhattan Christian. Arlee will surely miss its two dynamic players, but their impact will still be felt.
“I think those boys, (Malatare) and (Mesteth), they left a legacy that these guys know what it takes,” Pitts said. “It hurts and I miss them and I’ll always love them and I’m super proud of all the accomplishments they’ve done, but they’ve trained these boys. They’re exactly where I would expect them to be. They’re ready.”
The Warriors will have a crowded field of challengers to their perch atop Class C. 2018 state tournament contenders Scobey, Fairview, Melstone and Manhattan Christian return strong teams with state championship aspirations.
On its way to back-to-back titles, Arlee has beaten Manhattan Christian in both the divisional and state championship games each time. The Eagles, though, return 6-foot-6 Montana State University commit Caleb Bellach, along with a cast that played significant minutes last season.
Manhattan Christian will have a new backcourt headed by junior Sam Leep and sophomore Caidin Hill. Both Leep and Hill contributed during the Eagles’ run to the state championship game and have the full confidence of head coach Jeff Bellach.
And the Eagles have all the motivation they need. After back-to-back runner-up finishes, Manhattan Christian is ready to ascend to the top.
“They’ve been very motivated, it’s a fun group,” Jeff Bellach said. “They’ve seen four teams in a row go to the state tournament, some of them have been a big part of that the last couple years, playing for a couple state titles, so they’re hungry, they’re focused.”
The Eagles get an early-season test on Dec. 8 when they host Melstone, which is also among the top contenders this season.
The Broncs finished third at last year’s state tournament and return three-time all-state senior guard Brody Grebe, as well as a pair of all-conference guards in junior Shayden Cooke and senior Thomas Dejaegher. Grebe has more than 1,800 points in his career and averaged 24 points per game last season.
Joining the fray for the Broncs is Brody’s younger brother Bryce, an eighth grader, who should step in and help Melstone from the perimeter.
“I feel like I have the best player every night, which helps me,” Melstone head coach Jason Grebe said of Brody. “We’ve got pretty good guys, though. We’ve got eight, 10 solid guys. Bryce, he’s going to help us, too. He shoots the ball probably better than anybody I’ve got.
“People zone us. They have trouble with Brody, so they try to pack it in on us. That’s where Bryce will help us.”
The Broncs came up short of the title game last season, but with a strong returning core, expectations are high in Melstone.
“We want to win (the title),” Jason said. “It won’t be easy, that’s for sure. I think we’ve got the crew. It might take all year, that’s why I’m not putting a ton on this opening weekend (against Manhattan Christian), but if it shows that we can do better in March, it’s worth the time.”
But this year appears to be wide open. Scobey and Fairview had strong showings at last year’s state tournament and return talented teams. Scobey will be young, led by all-state sophomore Caden Handran, but is expected to be contending late in the season.
Fairview, however, is bringing back a ton of experience. While Carson Cayko will miss the season due to injury, there’s plenty of depth to pick up the slack. Alex Schriver was all-state last season, and Cody Asbeck and Josh Herron were all-conference selections.
“They’re pretty focused,” said Fairview head coach Luke Kloker, who is returning to the sideline after a three-year hiatus. “We’ve had some good practices so far, and pretty competitive practices. I feel like we have a deep group of kids. It’s nice to have 10, 12 kids that can get after it on a daily basis.”
Class C boys basketball will feature plenty of deep and talented teams in what figures to be a wide-open championship race. However, top contending teams know that Arlee is still the team to beat, at least for now.
“Until someone knocks them off, they’ve got the title,” Kloker said. “They had a number of kids that played last season that were underclassmen that are returning. I’m sure Manhattan Christian out West is looking forward to that opportunity, as are the teams out in the South, East, and North. I think Arlee, until someone beats them, they’re the champion.”
Arlee is pegged as the favorite by others, but Pitts sees several good teams capable of winning, largely due to senior leadership.
“This season I’d definitely say we’re on a more level playing field. There’s a lot more seniors on the court this year,” Pitts said. “You have Melstone, they’re going to be here to grind, led by a senior. Manhattan Christian, again, led by a senior. Chinook led by all seniors. And then I can’t take away the fact that Scobey’s well-coached and Fairview has been to the state tournament who knows how many times. Those teams are all solid teams.”