In Church Gymnasium, a Basketball Star is Born

By Beacon Staff

Ben Cutler has learned a lot in church, like how to knock down a pull-up jumper.

Cutler, a 5-foot-11 senior at Glacier High School, is the leading scorer in Class AA this year. He grew up practicing jump shots in the gymnasiums of churches where his father was the pastor, from Nebraska to Montana. To this day, Cutler hones his skills on a basketball court located inside Kalispell’s Trinity Lutheran Church. His dad Mark, a 6-foot-3 pastor with a solid post-up game, is still Cutler’s mentor and playing partner.

The entire Cutler family plays basketball: all four kids and both parents. But Ben has never viewed the sport as his hereditary obligation – and certainly not as his birthright. While his older brother Luke, a sharpshooter who graduated from Flathead High School in 2007, could have played college basketball, he opted not to. The difference between Luke and Ben, their father says, is that “Ben really wants it.”

Mark would know what it takes to make it to college ball, as he played for four years at Concordia University in Seward, Neb. Ben’s unflinching desire to play in college combined with his natural talent has produced the top scorer Class AA has seen in years.

“At one point in my college life I thought I was pretty good,” Mark said. “But I’m looking at Ben and he’s a lot better.”

Cutler is averaging 23.8 points per game, which puts him on pace to finish with one of the highest scoring averages in Class AA in the past two decades. Led by Cutler and junior star Shay Smithwick-Hann, the Wolfpack are a top contender in Western AA. Midway through the season, Glacier is 8-4 (3-1) after finishing last year with a 3-18 record and no conference victories. Utilizing a fast-paced, run-and-gun style, the Wolfpack are second int the state in scoring at 64.3 points per game.

As a junior last year, Cutler averaged 18.9 points per contest, third-best in the state, en route to a first team all-state selection. The differences in Cutler this year are clear: he is stronger, more aggressive and clearly determined to be the best all-around offensive force on the court every game, especially in the fourth quarter. This was on display earlier in the year against Whitefish when he led the Wolfpack back from a double-digit deficit, scoring the majority of his career-high 34 points in the second half. Glacier won 78-77.

Cutler’s always been a good outside shooter, knocking down three-pointers at a more efficient rate than nearly every other player in Class AA over the past two seasons. But this season he has beefed up the rest of his offensive arsenal. His moves off the dribble are quicker and more authoritative. His pull-up jumper is more consistent. And, because he’s stronger from a productive off-season in the weight room, he can absorb contact and finish at the rim.

In basketball, explosiveness is often measured in vertical terms – a player’s ability to get off the ground. But Cutler’s strength is his horizontal explosiveness – his first step is as good as any in Montana high school basketball, just slightly better than his second step. He has an innate ability to find the opening in any defensive formation.

“I don’t know anybody who can get to the rim from the three-point line as fast as he can,” said Mark Harkins, Glacier’s head coach.

While Cutler’s first step and all-around athleticism are largely products of his natural ability, Harkins said his senior guard’s foremost strength is his work ethic. It has enabled him to rise out of relative obscurity at the beginning of his junior year to stardom this season.

“He works harder than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Harkins said. “Ben might just be the poster child for the team because we have a whole group of hard-working kids.”

In the summer you can find the entire Cutler family playing three-on-three games in their driveway, which is carefully marked with a regulation three-point line. Mark is a referee and he takes the rules seriously.

Nowadays, the three-on-three games usually pit the youngest kids against the parents and Luke, the oldest sibling, if he’s in town. Joann, the mother, was a star basketball player in high school before accepting a volleyball scholarship to Concordia, where she met Mark.

Rachel Cutler is a sophomore on the Glacier Lady Wolfpack varsity basketball team. Like Ben, she is a skilled shooter with a knack for scoring. James, the youngest sibling, is an eighth-grader who Mark says is destined to play basketball. His blood has determined this.

In the colder months, you can find the Cutlers in the gym at Trinity Lutheran. That’s still where Ben fine-tunes his jumper.

“We’ve always been playing basketball either outside or in a church,” Mark said. “It was always, ‘What are we going to do today? We’re probably going to go out and play basketball.’”

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