It takes just one game. Or often in the case of Bigfork High School, just one shot. A season of triumph can be turned on its head in an abrupt moment.
When Kurt Paulson, the Vikings’ second-year head basketball coach, repeats this reminder, it strikes a nerve with his high-ranking team.
Two of Bigfork’s four losses this season, against perennial Class A contenders Columbia Falls and Dillon, were decided by only one basket.
Though they came early in the regular season, the narrow losses called to mind more painful memories from last year.
In the District 7-B championship game, the fourth-ranked Vikings lost their first Class B game all season on a buzzer-beater by unranked Troy. The following week, in the semifinals of the Western B divisional tournament, Florence drained a similar last-second shot to drop Bigfork, 56-55. The boys regrouped and won the third-place game but it proved futile. The Vikes’ season of high hopes ended there.
“Just like that, not going to state,” Paulson recalled recently.
“I’m demanding more focus this year. It just takes one game. I thought we were one of the better teams last year. But we weren’t as focused as we needed to be.”
Winners of 10 of the last 11, the Vikings (14-4 overall) are roaring back into the postseason this week with renewed dominance. They already secured the regular-season district title after sweeping the conference schedule for the third year in a row. But last Friday’s 55-38 defeat against Florence proved to be a reminder for the No. 1 ranked Vikings of the obstacles ahead.
Bigfork hosts a District 7-B playoff game on Thursday, Feb. 14. The district championship will be played in Libby, Feb. 16. The top four teams will advance to the divisional tournament at Flathead High, Feb. 20-22. From there, the top two survivors will join six others from across the state at the Class B championship tournament in Butte, March 7-9.
The Vikings climbed the state rankings this season and achieved the top spot in the Associated Press basketball poll two weeks ago. They stood above an impressive list of teams, including defending champion Malta (16-1) and 2010 champ Rocky Boy (14-2).
But as Paulson says, rankings mean nothing in the postseason.
“I haven’t brought (the AP poll) up to them. I just want them to focus on each week and each game,” he said. “If they keep working hard and winning, they keep playing.”
Paulson, a former all-state player at Whitefish High who went on to play at Carroll College, spent all offseason focused on making new gains in the program. The boys played in 24 tournament games during summer. In the fall they underwent rigorous training in the weight room and gym. The intensity carried into the season and hasn’t dimmed yet.
“I work them hard and they love it,” Paulson said.
As a result, Bigfork has one of the most well-rounded squads around. Five players are averaging at least nine or more points per game.
Senior co-captain Colter Trent, standing 6-foot-6 at the forward position, is leading the team with 12.5 points per game. Christian Evans, a 6-6 junior forward, is averaging 11. Austin Jordt, a 5-10 senior guard, is contributing almost 11 per game and senior co-captain Seth Roessmann, a 6-0 guard, is regularly adding almost 10.
“The strength of our team is we’re so balanced,” Paulson said. “We don’t have a superstar that shoots every time. We have multiple threats.”
That’s not to say Bigfork doesn’t have a top-tier athlete. Any one of the starting five can take over a game, and at points during the season they have.
“They’ve bought into being a team,” Paulson said. “We’re so balanced now you can’t really take away one guy. That’s what you want.”
Paulson has seen the team grow hungrier as the season winds down. Everyone knows how competitive it is contending for a Class B trophy.
There are 40 teams across Montana in Class B. Only Class C has more, with 104 schools comprising 90 teams. Class B is broken into Northern, Southern and Western divisions with seven districts.
Of the current alignment, no team from the West has won a Class B boys basketball state championship since 1987, when Plains edged Wolf Point, 85-81.
Basketball remains the only sport that Bigfork has not won a championship in. The team has only played in one title game, losing a nail biter in 1983 to Conrad, 75-74.
The closest the boys have been since was two years ago. The Vikings were minutes away from playing in the championship game before Wolf Point eked out a 81-78 overtime victory in the semifinals. Wolf Point went on to win the title.
Just like that.
“Honestly, anybody can beat anybody,” Paulson said. “We’re feeling good. But the games will be closer down the stretch. We just have to learn how to win the close ones and play our best at the end of the season.”