MISSOULA -- Lexi Deden remembers the disappointment quite vividly.
After the Missoula Sentinel High girls basketball team was ousted from the Western AA divisional tournament by Kalispell Glacier last March, the bus ride home was a long one for Deden and Co. as the Spartans would miss out on the Class AA state tournament for the first time in recent memory. Even tougher to swallow was it came after two straight seasons that saw Sentinel make the state championship game.
A starter since her freshman year, a spark was lit for Deden and her teammates to never feel that disappointment again.
This year, Sentinel is back on track with a 7-1 record overall and 3-1 mark in the Western AA.
"Not going to state, it did not feel very good and it broke my heart and a lot of people's hearts on this team," Deden said. "This last summer we did really well in our summer season and we excelled in that, and I think that gave us fire for this coming season and it actually made us really want to try and want to be good and want to win, so that was really fun."
Deden, who signed a letter of intent back in November to play college basketball at Montana State, is the lone senior for the Spartans, who like the boys team, are dealing with a youth movement. Both squads feature a young core of players.
So while Deden has been playing big varsity minutes since the beginning, now the job is bringing along the younger players so they're ready once she leaves for Bozeman.
"It's been so fun just getting to know all of these girls even better than last year," Deden said. "We have incredible freshmen coming here and they're actually stepping up and playing varsity, too, as well."
Sentinel lost its first game of the year, like the boys, on Saturday against Helena Capital. Losses like that refocus a team. And after seeing losses in the state championship game as a freshman and sophomore, Deden knows that losses in the earlier part of the season are better than in the final game of the year and help a team iron out its game down the stretch.
Sentinel head coach Karen Deden, Lexi's aunt, said she's never coached a team with this much youth and not as many upperclassmen before. So that growth has been the team's biggest area of navigation this
"I think the fact that we're young and that we know we're going to make mistakes and we're just trying to play through them and believing in each other," Karen Deden said. "It's kind of been a fresh start for the kids.
"I think the kids put in a lot of time in the offseason. I think I have a lot of kids who are three-sport athletes on our team. I think we're able to take a new mentality because we are so new to each other. Lexi and Challis (Westwater) return with the most playing time, but we have three 14-year-olds, three 15-year-olds, three 16-year-olds and one 18-year-old, so that's a young team."
Sentinel's next game will be the first Missoula crosstown matchup of the season when the Spartans take on Big Sky on Friday. With a looming Jan. 31 crosstown game with rival Hellgate, which is also among Class AA's elite with a 7-1 record, Sentinel's road only gets tougher as the postseason approaches.
"I think the most important thing going into the season is we kept it simple at the start and really kind of focused on, 'OK, we know we're going to make mistakes, it's how we battle back from them,'" Karen Deden said. "If somebody would've told me we would've been 7-1 at this point in the season, I would've said no way, so we're happy but at the same point in time we do know what our focus is in the second half."