The Flathead Braves knew this season wasn’t going to be easy. After receiving news that senior star Brock Osweiler was graduating early and wouldn’t play this winter, the boys were faced with this scenario: three seniors, one player with varsity experience and a young supporting cast.
Then five games into the season the seniors left the team, telling head coach Fred Febach that they want to graduate early and pursue other interests.
“For the first few days we were kind of in shock,” said Ian Gillespie, a sophomore point guard who hadn’t played a minute of varsity before this season and was suddenly thrust into the starting role.
At that time the Braves were 1-4, their one win a 67-66 thriller over Whitefish in which point guard Danny Salois banked in a game-winning three-pointer in the waning seconds. Salois was one of the three seniors who left the team.
So head coach Fred Febach assembled a varsity roster as best he could without seniors. He put together a starting lineup with two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman – a group hardly prepared for the rigors of Montana Class AA basketball.
Karl Ingram, one of the junior starters, said before the season started many people didn’t expect the Braves to win a single game. Now without their three seniors, even their closest followers had to feel a little uncertain whether the Braves would find the win column again.
But a week later, the Braves knocked off Missoula Big Sky, 44-40, at home. Big Sky, one of the top teams in Western AA, came into the game with a 5-2 (2-0) record. The Braves were 1-7 (0-1).
“I think that game gave us a lot of confidence,” Ingram, the Braves’ leading scorer, said. “I think it gave us respect too.”
This is not the 2006-2007 Braves team that bulled its way to the state tournament. This team doesn’t have the all-state tandem of Brock Osweiler and Geoff Hogan. In fact, this team doesn’t even have a kid within five inches as tall as Osweiler.
Watch these Braves in practice and you hear constant verbal interaction and occasional laughing tempered by an obvious focus. They’re learning on the fly, so they have no choice but to be focused, otherwise they’ll show up at games totally unprepared. A young team that hasn’t paid attention in practice during the week is a prime candidate to lose by 40. They know this.
“They bring a lot of energy to practice, a lot of enthusiasm,” Febach said. “I’m really enjoying it.”
The boys are quick to tell you that the adversity has brought them together. Egos have been checked at the gym door. They openly embrace Febach’s call for intense pressure on defense and understand that it can’t be done without five players on the same page. They proved it by holding Big Sky to 40 points.
“They get along so well together,” Febach said. “That’s impressive to me.”
Flathead followed up its victory over Big Sky with a close loss to Bigfork, 60-55, at home on Jan. 22. The Braves are 2-8 on the season. They have had problems with timing and execution, particularly when teams full-court press them. But these things come with time and Ingram, a 6-foot-3 post, said the team is improving everyday.
Ingram said getting used to the pace of varsity competition is a slow learning curve, but he is clearly ahead of the curve. He is averaging 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, both top 10 in the state.
“The speed and the strength and the size – it’s hard to get used to, but I’m getting there,” Ingram said.
No doubt the loss of the seniors hurt. Febach said he tried to talk them out of it, but “they had their minds set.” But Febach has been preaching to his kids that the unusual circumstances present an opportunity, not a step backward.
Guys who didn’t think they would get more than a minute here or there are now starting. Nobody expects them to rack up victories, so the boys share a nothing-to-lose attitude. By the end of this year, they figure they will be a force to be reckoned with, or at least not a team to be overlooked. By the beginning of next year, they should be right where they want to be.
Even for Febach, the season offers a fresh perspective to coaching.
“I’ll play anybody and everybody that stays on the court and plays hard,” Febach said. “I don’t care how we do win-and-loss wise, it’s just really fun for me to go to practice and have this opportunity with these kids.”
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