MISSOULA — Sometimes freshmen can benefit from what they don’t know.
For Bailee Sayler, Addy Heaphy, Perry Paffhausen, Lauren Dick and Keke Davis, Missoula Hellgate’s girls basketball game against Missoula Sentinel was just the ninth game on the Knights’ schedule this season.
But for seniors Kylie Lunday and Peyton Arledge, that game represented much more — perhaps a changing of the guard in the Garden City. Until Saturday, the Knights’ last win over their crosstown rival came in 2003.
“I think it’s a confidence booster for the older girls. Those sophomores, juniors and seniors have never beat Sentinel,” said Rob Henthorn, Hellgate’s fourth-year coach. “In my years past, we’d go to Sentinel, and the girls walked into the gym knowing they couldn’t win.”
That’s no longer the case. Hellgate improved to 5-4 overall and 2-2 in the Western AA with a come-from-behind 40-31 win over the Spartans. The Knights, playing without leading scorer Emma Blakely, who is sidelined with an ankle injury, sputtered through a two-point second quarter, falling behind 19-11 at halftime.
They exploded past the Spartans in the second half, though, outscoring Sentinel 18-7 in the fourth quarter. Lunday finished with a team-high 12 points. Four freshmen — Sayler (10 points), Heaphy (seven), Paffhausen (five) and Dick (four) — and sophomore Georgia Walker-Keleher (two) rounded out the Knights’ scoring. While the importance of Hellgate’s seniors can’t be overstated, it’s that young nucleus that has the rest of the Western AA on notice.
“Right now, we’ve got a group of girls that are just basketball nuts, basketball enthusiasts,” Henthorn said. “I think what it’s done is it’s made us more competitive as a whole program. We told them first day of school, they’re not freshmen, they’re basketball players.”
They’ve completely bought in. The varsity rotation includes three seniors, one junior, one sophomore and five freshmen. It’s a battle for playing time every day in practice.
Blakely, who transferred from Sentinel last year, is this year’s catalyst. She averages 15.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game and serves as a senior leader alongside Lunday and Arledge.
“I think those younger girls do a really great job of just working with me and working with the other seniors on the team to just mesh with what we have right now,” Blakely recently told MTN Sports. “We are definitely going to play some top teams in the state of Montana when it comes to girls AA basketball, but this year I really feel we’ll be able to compete with them.”
The 2003 Hellgate team featured twin sisters Mandy and Molly Hays and ultimately finished second at the Class AA state tournament. Molly Hays was a two-time all-Big Sky Conference player at Idaho State before leaving the program prior to her junior season.
This year’s team of Knights probably isn’t yet at that level, but they’re realistically aiming for a spot at the state tournament, which would be their first appearance since that 2003 season. Hellgate’s four losses this season have come against Class AA’s best — No. 1 Helena High, No. 2 Helena Capital, No. 3 Billings West and No. 5 Bozeman.
The Knights have so far proven they can compete, playing one-loss Capital to within 10 points before losing Blakely to her injury. The next day at top-ranked Helena High, Kinsey Henthorn, the coach’s daughter, went down with an injury. Even without those two, Hellgate broke through for the much-needed win at Sentinel on Saturday.
“The biggest thing for us is, we have no whining, no excuses, no complaining,” said Rob Henthorn. “It’s competitive greatness, is what we shoot for every day.”