Mike Wolstein remembers when the gymnasium rumbled in Bigfork. Game nights were community events inside the bandbox arena that was erected in 1967.
“This is where you went in the winter time. You saw the whole community. Everybody,” says Wolstein, who donned the Vikings uniform from 1973-76 when Bigfork was a regular at the state tournament.
“Bigfork is a basketball town. If you’re in Bigfork and you’re out on this court, most everybody knows you. You’re lucky. It’s a great place to be. We’ve had wonderful times here.”
The gym once again rumbles. Bigfork basketball is pulsing. And Wolstein and the faithful fans are in awe.
The dominating, versatile Vikings are 20-0 and the top-ranked basketball team in Class B. They’re the first boys team in school history to go undefeated through the regular season and district tournament, which they won with ease last weekend.
They may occasionally falter or flatten, like last week’s sleepy showing against Plains, which they still won 69-22, but there’s good reason to believe the true version of the Bigfork Vikings is first-class among any basketball team in the state.
The Vikes are rumbling into this week’s Western B divisional tournament in Hamilton eager to prove more. The No. 1-seeded boys play St. Ignatius (7-14 overall, 2-6 in District 6B) at 6 p.m., Wednesday in the first round. The winner advances to the semifinal round game at 9:15 p.m., Thursday. The championship is at 9:15 p.m., Friday.
The top two teams advance to the Class B state tournament in Bozeman, March 13-15.
Florence (11-9, 6-2) defeated ninth-ranked Missoula Loyola (14-6, 7-1) in the District 6B championship, 38-36, and is the other top seed at the divisional. The Falcons play No. 4 seed Troy (11-9, 4-4) in the opening round at 1 p.m., Wednesday.
After losing to Bigfork in the District 7B title game, 70-44, Eureka (10-10, 5-3) earned the No. 2 seed at the Western divisional and will play Deer Lodge (9-11, 4-4) at 2:45 p.m., Wednesday.
There’s a familiar setting at the divisional tournament with Bigfork and Florence towering as the two most dominant forces in the West.
Two years ago, Florence dropped Bigfork 56-55 with a last-second shot in the semifinal round, ending the Vikings’ state tournament aspirations. Last year the Vikings entered the divisional tourney 14-4 overall and ranked fourth in the state while Florence was 19-1 and among the top ranks. The two teams battled in the championship and the Falcons eked out a 48-38 victory over the Vikes.
Both squads advanced to state, where Bigfork made it to the semifinal round. Yet Malta prevailed, 47-35, and went on the win the Class B state title over Wolf Point in triple overtime. It was the second time in three years that Bigfork fell one game shy of the state championship match; Bigfork lost to Wolf Point in overtime, 81-78, in 2012.
Bigfork has played in only one boys basketball state championship game: in 1983, when Conrad edged out a 75-74 win. It remains the lone sport in which the school has not achieved a title.
It’s not too surprising considering recent history.
There are 40 teams across Montana in Class B, which 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.
The West has been empty-handed ever since.
“We have to treat every game like we’re zero and zero,” said senior post Cameron Nissen. “We’ve got to play hard like it’s the first game of the season everyday … I think we can go all the way. I have 100 percent confidence in my team.”
The Vikings are built around height and athleticism, two pretty nice traits. Nissen is 6-foot-7 along with senior Christian Evans, the team’s all-state versatile scorer.
If Bigfork wants to advance past the divisional and survive against the best from the East and North, first-year head coach Josh Downey will need his team to play like it has in recent games, relying on everyone on the court instead of one or two players. Against Eureka in the district title game, four players scored in double figures: Evans (13), Isaac Martel (14), Jon Landon (13) and Josh Sandry (10).
“Until somebody stops what we’re doing, then no we’re not changing,” Downey said. “They’re all playing really well right now. Our turnovers are down. Rebounds are up. They’re hungry.”
girls win district title
The eighth-ranked Bigfork girls defeated Plains 48-41 to win the District 7B championship. The Valkyries (16-4, 6-2) play Ronan (11-10, 3-5) in the Western B divisional opener at 11:20 a.m., Thursday in Hamilton. Plains (15-5, 8-0) play at 5:45 p.m., Thursday.
Thompson Falls plays at 1 p.m., Thursday, and Eureka plays at 4 p.m.
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