BUTTE — The Butte Central winter teams escaped issues caused by the pandemic that have plagued other teams for months, but the Maroons boys' basketball team learned their season would be pushed back just one week before their season-opener.
Once the boys' team hits the floor, they will strive to build from last year's success, when they were named state co-champions after the pandemic cut the postseason short.
Meg Murphy's squad will host five senior girls, a luxury the team did not see last year and could prove key as they hope to perform well in-conference. Luckily for the girls' basketball team, their season remains unhindered to this point, opening their season as schedule on January 7.
The reigning state co-champions were set to play their first game in Livingston on January 7. Then the news broke that a positive case of COVID-19 was found within the program, which delayed the start of the season by four days.
The Maroons had been practicing together and smoothly up until this week, according to head coach Brodie Kelly. Despite the challenge of a constant possibility of a schedule change, the Maroons have high hopes and have faced adversity before.
"It was smooth sailing really, up until Tuesday," Kelly said. "We've really had our team together since the middle of October and now we're down to 12 guys because one of our players had symptoms."
"But they practice with an attitude of wanting to improve themselves," Kelly continued. "Even during the beginning and the middle of a pandemic, they've been practicing whether it's been as a team or independently. They work hard and love being in the gym together."
The high work ethic and determination is not always common for a team in the position the Maroons face. Nine seniors graduated last year, so the roster is rather new and inexperienced.
Of the four seniors on this year's roster, three had not played varsity basketball in prior seasons. Egan Lester, Isaac Sholey and John Fisher will provide senior leadership, without varsity experience themselves.
"The group is a lot of fun to coach, they all embrace the underdog mentality," Kelly said. "Guys come in as freshmen and begin to learn the system then improve every year."
Brian Holland, a 6'4" forward, is the only senior on the team that played varsity last season. Holland played key minutes last year, and is a prime example of the year-to-year growth Kelly hopes for through his coaching system.
Holland said he prides himself on his defense and rebounding. While it is his last season in a Maroons uniform, he said he does not feel sad, he just wants to make the most of the season.
"We're taking the mentality of the underdog, and I think a lot of people are overlooking us because we lost nine seniors," Holland said. "But I think we'll take that mentality this season and have the same expectations we always have. We want to make the state tournament and compete for a championship."
As a three-sport athlete, Holland has been torn between Carroll College and Montana Tech as the next step in his life. But he made it clear that when it comes to sports, he is not looking past the next task at hand as a Maroons basketball player.
Despite the lack of varsity experience, Kelly said he is optimistic about multiple players this season. Kyle Holter, a versatile sophomore, has been another intense defensive presence and high-level athlete for the Maroons, and will have an increased role this season.
Bryson Sestrich, a junior who ran point guard duties for the junior varsity team last year, has shown potential as a ball handler and will be the primary point guard for the varsity squad this year.
"We've got really good shooting potential, we have guys that just live in the gym," Kelly said. "Holster is a great athlete and just a scrappy, quick player. We have a well-rounded team and I'd say we're about seven-to-eight players deep."
Kelly also said the offense may look slightly different this year, with an emphasis on pushing the pace and shooting efficiently from the three-point line.
The Maroons will open their season with a home game against Dillon on January 9. The game against Livingston has been rescheduled for February 11 in Livingston, according to a release from the school.
Unlike the boys team, the Butte Central girls basketball team will return five seniors on this year's squad, which could lead to an improved postseason performance and an opportunity for growth among younger players.
Once conference play begins and is played out, head coach Meg Murphy said the goal is to expand their playing field as much as possible. Conference, regional and also the state tournament are all on the table for her team in 2021.
"The goal is to get to the state tournament and see the chips fall as they do," Murphy said. "The hope is to get out of the conference and get into the divisional tournament, then get out of the divisional tournament and get to the state tournament."
"But with this season and COVID we're not sure what's going to happen. The girls work hard and there's no reason if they play to their abilities that they can't meet those goals," Murphy continued.
Avery Kelly, Amira Bolton, Delaney Hasquet, Maddie Kump and Taylor Harrington have returned to the roster as seniors. Harrington is one of the tallest players on the team, standing at 5'10" and is anticipated to play a major role especially in the paint this season.
Sofee Thatcher, while only a junior, has shown significant leadership in past seasons and will do the same this year, according to Murphy. She has improved her game as well as her mindset from last year, and will bring that focus and improvement to the court.
"Sofee didn't have the best year last year but she's come back as an entirely new player this year," Murphy said. "I think we can expect big things from her this year and she's really grown in confidence."
Murphy described Avery Kelly as a sleeper player who could also contribute heavily to this year's team. Kelly, while quiet in personality, has shown growth as a player, teammate and young woman according to Murphy.
Many players also played volleyball last season, where the fun was cut short due to the pandemic. While the girls team has not had to postpone play like the boys team, they have felt the effects of the virus and have taken a similar have-something-to-prove mentality.
"Overall I'm really pleased with where the motivation has been, we're seeing great leadership from some of the older kids," Murphy said. "We're not where we always want to be, I think sometimes you just need to see a game to see what you can do and what you can't."
The season begins for the Maroons with a game in Butte against Park on Saturday.
Butte Central wrestling coach Robin Moodry could not be reached for an interview