The large sports pennants hanging on the wall of the gymnasium inside Stillwater Christian School seem more like a chronological history of teams rather than a catalog of excellence. In fact, they’re both.
At the kindergarten-through-12th grade private school in Kalispell, the high school sports programs are perpetually successful, illustrated by the list of state titles in the gymnasium. Just between the boys and girls basketball teams, there are 22 state championships since 1985 in the Montana Christian Athletic Association, 11 for each. Not bad for a high school with fewer than 100 students.
This latest boys basketball team is chasing another championship banner with a talented, tight-knit group under first-year head coach Andy Harrel.
The two-time defending state champion Cougars are 12-2 overall at the halfway point of the season with noteworthy victories over the Flathead Braves junior-varsity squad and the varsity teams at Eureka, Troy, Mission and Valley Christian.
“They are a group of guys that really enjoy being around each other and competing,” said Harrel, who took over head coaching duties for Dana Hashley.
“With that kind of chemistry, it really helps them play well and feed off each other.”
Harrel has maintained the high standard for a program he’s closely familiar with. He played on two championship Cougars teams before graduating in 2006 and went on to play in college. He also enjoyed a stint overseas playing semi-professional in England and Ireland before returning home to the Flathead Valley. He worked as an assistant coach under Hashley the last two years before accepting a full-time teaching job at Stillwater and the head-coaching role.
“I feel very blessed to be here full-time teaching and coaching this team,” he said.
Harrel is building on a program that Hashley and Ted Clark developed into a perennial state contender. Hashley, a Flathead High School graduate who was a standout on the 1989 Flathead Braves state championship team, coached from 2006 to 2009 and then from 2014 to 2016. Clark coached for six years before Hashley and during Hashley’s two stints while serving as athletic director. The Cougars have won the last two titles, along with championships in 2011-12, 2005-06, 2004-05, 2000-01, 1999-00, 1995-96, 1991-92, 1990-91 and 1989-90.
“We do have that tradition that we’re going to do our best,” Hashley said.
This latest pack of Cougars has three standout senior leaders helping lead the way, including the two-time MCAA state tourney MVP, Isaac Neumann. The 6-foot-3 wing can do it all, whether it’s attack the basket or shoot from the perimeter. A year ago, he shot nearly 60 percent from the field and averaged 21 points per game, helping lead Stillwater Christian to a 21-2 overall record and the title. He was named MVP for the second year in a row.
This winter, Neumann is back at it, averaging roughly 20 point per game. He scored a season-high 35 against Montana Academy and is hoping to attract attention from college programs.
“I want to leave a reputation for a hard work ethic and accountability,” he said.
“I love basketball and I love the teamwork that’s involved. It’s less of an individual sport and more about working together as a team and helping each other. I like the camaraderie that’s involved.”
Neumann is one of two returning starters along with senior Joe Hooker, another standout. Also, Austin Brown moved to the Flathead Valley from North Dakota in the offseason and has shined on the court.
“We have great leadership on this team,” Harrel said. “Those three seniors are our leading scorers and also lead by example.”
Both Brown and Hooker are averaging roughly 15 points per game.
As the state tournament in March approaches, the Cougars are less worried about defending their state title and more focused on enjoying the journey, especially for the seniors in their final games.
“We haven’t talked about (defending the championship) much. We’re more about getting better every day,” Harrel said. “We don’t want to peak until the last game of the season.”
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