MISSOULA -- Age is but a number when it comes to Missoula Sentinel High's boys basketball team.
The Spartans have been one of the best teams in Class AA as February approaches despite that on paper they're a younger team. Sentinel starts five juniors and sports only two seniors on its roster. But despite that, varsity experience from past seasons has paved the way for this young crew to start this season off 7-1.
Head coach Jay Jagelski said he wasn't surprised by how well his young players have taken 2019-20 by storm. To him, their years in school don't accurately depict just how veteran this group is in terms of on-court time.
"The expectations are pretty high with this group," Jagelski said. "They're experienced basketball players, they were excited for the season. They're going to be good and some of these guys are going to be playing beyond their high school years and some of our other players will be playing in other sports beyond these years.
"I think the expectation was from the get-go to win. Now, we know we can do that, but obviously there are other teams that want to win, too, so we have to figure out how to do that."
Sentinel (7-1 overall, 3-1 Western AA) began the season 7-0, previously defeating good teams like Great Falls High - which was undefeated at the time - as well as an early Western AA bout with perennial power Kalispell Glacier. But the Spartans had a setback over the weekend against Helena Capital where they dropped their first game of the season 72-59 to the Bruins.
Coaches often say teams learn more from losses than wins, and Jagelski said the loss was a good wake-up call for his squad.
"I think we're progressing," Jagelski said. "I think Saturday was a great learning experience for us that we figured out some things from a player standpoint and coaching standpoint for what we could do better and things we need to work on and things we need to address in order to get to where we want to be at the end of the season."
Juniors Tony Frohlich-Fair, Alex Germer, Hayden Kolb, Soren Syvrud and TJ Rausch have been the Spartans' starters this year. Frohlich-Fair and Germer are examples of Sentinel's vast varsity experience despite their age as key members from last year's team that advanced to the Class AA state tournament. Sophomore Zac Crews also plays key rotation minutes while Jamie Jacobsen and Jack Larsen are Sentinel's two seniors.
Germer currently holds an offer to play basketball at Montana State.
"These are by far some of the most skilled players I've ever coached," Jagelski said. "I've had some good teams and I've had some teams be senior dominated, and maybe some of my other players have different opinions, but this is by far the most skilled and talented team we've ever had."
Athleticism and basketball knowledge stand out to Jagelski. And despite its youth, Sentinel had plenty of expectations among the players to contend this year.
"I think that our expectation was nothing less than a state championship and I think we're still on track to do that," Frohlich-Fair said. "I think that we're all pretty confident because we work outside of basketball. So, I don't think our age or youth was that much of an obstacle for us."
And Sentinel's rise to the top of the AA this season makes for an interesting scenario considering its crosstown rival, Missoula Hellgate High, is another contender year in and out, with the Knights finishing second a season ago. The crosstown games will be a challenge -- the first on Jan. 31 at Dahlberg Arena, the night before the University of Montana and Montana State men's and women's teams play each other in Missoula -- and both Hellgate and Sentinel could see each other down the road in postseason play, making each game all the more interesting. Hellgate is currently 8-0 overall and 4-0 in Western AA play.
While Sentinel has made the state tournament fairly consistently, the Spartans haven't advanced to the state semifinals since 2010 and are looking for their first state championship since 1986.
"I personally find (this season) super enjoyable," Frohlich-Fair said. "We all enjoy each other on and off the court. I think just playing with a bunch of athletic kids from the first five to the eighth, ninth man on the bench really gets us individually better and then it helps when we play other athletic teams on the court.
"For (Jagelski) to trust us is really special because some coaches wait until junior or senior year, but I think he knows how hard we work, so I think he has a reason to trust us, but I really appreciate him because I think it helps us grow together as a team."