new champion will be crowned this year in the state Class B high school boys’ basketball tournament.
Whitehall and Deer Lodge are among those vying for the crown. The tourney goes Thursday through Saturday in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman.
The 2011 champion, Wolf Point, did not qualify for this year’s state tourney. Neither did last year’s runner-up, Columbus.
However, top-ranked Manhattan and the two teams tied for second in the statewide Class B poll, Shepherd and Fairfield, are in the field. So are No. 5-ranked Malta, No. 8 Lodge Grass, and Florence, which lost to Deer Lodge in the Western B Divisional championship thriller and shares the No. 10 state poll ranking with Wolf Point.
Florence and Whitehall are the only returnees from last year’s state tournament, which was held in Great Falls. Florence placed third.
Whitehall enters with a 16-7 record built against a rugged schedule. Only two double-digit losses can be found on the ledger — to state No. 1-ranked Manhattan and Class A cpntender Dillon. Whitehall also has a win over Manhattan.
“We’ve had a lot of close losses and a lot of close wins,” Whitehall head coach Zach McLean said. “Hopefully, the close losses will turn into wins now and the close wins will help us out here at state.”
The Trojans carry plenty of firepower in the 14-to-15-points-a-game scoring by both Casey McLean and Layne Simon. Success, though, has been aided by keeping the oppositition from matching it.
“We take big pride in our defense,” coach McLean, older brother of the player, said. “Most of our practice time is dedicated to defense. The axiom is defense wins championships and I think that’s very true.”
It is a wise, bothersome defense McLean stresses so that his bench isn’t taxed.
“We’re not ones who come out and trap and pressure,” he said. “We’re more of a contain defense. We try to play fundamentally sound and not get beat on penetration.
“We don’t go super deep, so we have to keep out of foul troouble,. That’s probably why we don’t trap.”
The 6-foot-4 Simon and 6-0 Dawson Patritti are senior starters in the Whitehall lineup. They are joined by McLean, a 6-0 junior, and two more juniors — 6-0 Sean McCarthy and 6-3 Keaton Corr.
Also expected to see time are sophomore Bryce Murphy, senior Dalton Heilig, Matt Dyson and Camden Sacry.
A mention was made of Butte coaching lineage, too, running through the Trojan roster. The McLeans are grandsons of longtime Butte High administrator and coach Bill Brown, and Simon is a grandson of late Butte Central basketball coaching legend Otto Simon.
Whitehall’s first-round opponent is Malta in a scheduled 2 p.m. start. The Mustangs figure to test the Trojans’ defensive approach.
“We do know they’re guard-oritented,” Zach McLean said. “They have three really good guards. They have a capable, good point guard in Kendall Denham, who does it all for them.
“All shoot it pretty well. They’re athletic and like to pressure. The transition game is a big part of the game for them. So, we don’t want to get in an up-and-down game with tem.
“They play eight to 10 guys who can play decent minutes for them.”
Deer Lodge outlasted Florence 53-50 in double overtime to win the Western B title. Hayden Benjamin was the high scorer with nine points in a team-wide effort.
The 5-foot-8 sophomore is usually joined by Reno Ward, 6-2 senior Robert Stone, 5-8 junior Jessee Vasquez, 6-2 junior Rodney Hunter and 5-6 freshman Derek Walker as scoring leaders.
Logan Doiron, a 6-3 sophomore, helps on the inside.
Tristen Clark, Malik Parham and Andrew Pierson participated in the win over Florence.
Head coach Curtis Fox has guided the Wardens to a 13-10 record going into their 8 p.m. first-round game aganst Shepherd.
Manhattan was undefeated for most of the season before falling to Whitehall in teh District 5-B championship game and then to Lodge Grass in the Southern B Divisional title tilt.
Tigers head coach Mike Woodman has gotten top-notch play from 6-6 senior Tanner Hupka, 6-2 senior Braedon Niemi, 6-3 junior Quinn McQueary, 6-4 sophomore Gavin DeJong, 6-2 senior Cale Howells, 5-11 senior Marcus Swan and 6-3 senior Mark Nunez, and others.