BUTTE — The Butte High's boys' basketball team may be one of the youngest and most undersized squads in the Class AA ranks but don’t expect those numbers to rattle Lathan Ricketts, the Bulldogs' only senior.
The 6-foot-1 forward also knows that as the most veteran player on his squad, he’s going to have to step up.
“I know I’ve got to be a leader and bring this team up,” said Ricketts, who has been playing at the varsity level since his sophomore year. “But I’m used to playing with these guys and I’ve got chemistry with them and we’re all pretty used to each other.
“But we’re small, and we're going to have to fight and be there for each other and take punches as they come.”
Coming off a 9-11 campaign, Ricketts and the Butte boys will look to absorb those punches and prove that age and height alone do not determine success on the court when they kick off the 2017 season on Tuesday against Helena at the Butte Civic Center. The Bulldogs will also have their eyes on March 1-3 when Butte will host the Eastern Divisional AA Tournament and will be gunning for a spot in the state tournament.
"We're looking to be improved enough that, come divisional time, we're competing for a spot in the state tournament," said third-year coach Luke Powers.
The narrative isn't much different for the girls' team, led by third-year coach Maury Cook, which has no seniors on its roster and whose only 6-footer is starting sophomore Kira Mortensen. The girls open their season with a road game against the Bengals on Tuesday.
After posting back-to-back 2-18 campaigns, the Bulldog girls are looking to reverse their fortunes. What they lack in size and experience, they'll focus on making up in speed.
"Everybody on the floor has the ability to score, so we’re trying to play up-tempo because we’re small," said Cook. "We’re just trying to play up-tempo both offensively and defensively and try to create some turnovers."
Sophomore Haley Herron and juniors Ally Cleverly, Brittney Tierney and Aspen Lovshin round out the Bulldogs' starting lineup.
For Ricketts, the only senior on either varsity team, his post-graduation plans are still uncertain but he's committed to making an impact in his last season nonetheless.
"I'm just playing for my own and trying to make my team better," said Ricketts.
The Bulldogs will try to contend this season after graduating a sizeable amount of senior talent including Brock Powell who averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, Evan Anderson who sank 40 3-pointers throughout last season, defensive standout Travis Williams and Austin Lee who led the team in charges.
Powers said Powell's 6-foot-4, 250-pound presence will especially be missed near the baseline.
"We don't have an inside post presence right now," said Powers. "Brock Powell was that answer last year."
Dominating the post will be a challenge the Bulldogs will need to address, but ask Powers what other areas Butte is excelling in and he knows where his teams strengths reside.
"Shooting, no doubt about it," said Powers. "We can shoot the heck out of it, we can handle the heck out of it and we can pass it."
The relatively small Bulldogs also know that efficient shooting from beyond the arc will be of high importance.
"There will be games where this team is capable of scoring 75-80 points a game, but it's going to come from outside," said Powers. "We're going to live and die by the 3."
But with raw experience and size not tilting in the Bulldogs favor, Butte will be hyper-focused on handling one specific aspect of the game: rebounds.
“Everybody’s going to be taller than us, so we’re gonna fight for rebounds and run,” said Ricketts.
Powers believes Ricketts has the ability to emerge as a decisive leader and is well-rounded enough to make a difference in any aspect of the game.
"He's a great kid, a great 3-point shooter and a nice defensive player," said Powers, a Butte native and Butte High graduate. "We're still in the middle of building this team, but it's heading in the right direction."
Powers is also expecting to see great things from 6-foot-2 junior guard Clay Ferguson who is entering his first season as a full-fledged varsity player.
"We're gonna have to fight and get rebounds and scrap," said Ferguson. "Some of us have been playing together since the fifth grade, so we're comfortable with each other and we have that chemistry."
Other players to keep an eye on? Junior point guard Kash Kelly, guard Trevyn Roth and sophomore guard Tommy Mellott.
For Powers, Butte may be his hometown, but his path to becoming the Bulldogs coach took him on a lengthy journey.
He earned his degree at Dickinson State and then moved to the East Coast to coach American Athletic Union basketball. He then headed back west to become the head basketball coach at New England High School in North Dakota, a position he held for five years.
When the coaching job in Butte was offered, he didn't hesitate.
"It was an opportunity to come home," said Powers.
Now heading into his third season, he's hoping to see the past two years of investment begin to pay dividends.
"We expect to improve and be playing our best basketball when the divisional tournament comes to town," said Powers. "We're excited to get better and excited to watch these kids grow. We're going to fall in the love with the process of improving everyday."