BELT — They sit at the end of the bench. Not in uniform, but very much still a part of the team.
Cadence and Ellison Graham are the daughters of Belt girls basketball coach Jeff Graham. And when the Huskies are playing, you can find the Graham girls on the edge of their seats – cheering, high fiving and packing loads of enthusiasm into their small stature.
Something coach Graham is forever grateful for.
“It’s special,” Graham said. “Cadence and Elly love these girls, and they’re role models for them and the more they’re around them the more I hope they turn out like the Belt girls. We’ve had some pretty special ones. It’s fun to see how excited they are and that’s the best part.”
Cadence and Ellison savor the wins and take the losses just has hard as the players.
“I like cheering on the girls, especially when it’s hard, hard games,” said Cadence. “I like getting them pumped up.”
Hoops is in their genes. Jeff was a star at Chester High School before making college stops at MSU-Northern, Carroll College and Montana Western. His wife, Megan (Schmitz), also had a standout career at Great Falls High and Montana Western.
With that basketball pedigree, it should come as no surprise that the Graham daughters are starting to make a name of their own on the courts.
Last weekend, Cadence and Ellison competed in the Elks Hoop Shoot Northwest Central Region Championships, a free throw shooting competition with events at the local, state, regional and national level.
Ten-year-old Cadence finished third in the 10-11-year-old girls age group, while 8-year-old Ellison won the regional title in the 8-9-year-old girl division. The younger sister hit 19 out of 25 free throws, and then earned a tie breaker in a five-shot overtime. She says that’s not even close to her best mark.
“I didn’t shoot my best, that’s my worst score,” Ellison said. “But yesterday I hit 24 out of 25 in practice.”
The performance earned Ellison a spot at the Hoop Shoot National Championship, on April 27 in Chicago where she will be one of only two Montanans competing. She’s thrilled to represent Belt, and Montana at the national level.
“We’ve got a lot of comments, like ‘good job girl, we’re going to be watching you,’” she beamed. “And it’s actually going to be on Facebook live this time so they can watch us.”
And though Cadence won’t be competing, she and the rest of the Graham family, which includes Jace (4) and Jimmer (1), will be right there in Chicago cheering her sister on. The family will also enjoy a banquet for finalists, and take in two MLB games: Cubs-Dodgers and White Sox-Tigers.
As they say, practice makes perfect and the Graham girls make sure to get in their free throws every day in their home away from home – the Belt High School gym.
“We usually practice every day,” Cadence. “We shoot a few rounds of 25. We try to get up 100-200 shots a day.”
They practice at home as well on a Fisher Price hoop in the kitchen where things can get a little competitive.
“Mostly we get mad at each other,” laughed Cadence. “Sometimes it turns into a pushing or kicking fight. Sometimes I get really mad at her, and she gets really mad at me.”
So who wins?
“Me!” yelled Ellison
Cadence rolled her eyes.
“I win the most,” she responded.
Competitive streaks aside, the sisters are best friends and make up quickly when the games get rough.
Win or lose, the Grahams are excited for the experience and plan to soak in the moment at nationals.
“Either you get first, second or third or you do your best,” Ellison said in a matter-of-fact manner. “Everyone is going to cheer me on. It’s just a fun experience and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”