It took the town of Bigfork about 80 years to win its first state basketball championship. It’s unlikely it will take nearly that long to win the next one.
Four years after the Vikings team capped an undefeated, storybook season with the Class B title, the lakeside summer vacation town is once again a hoops-loving basketball hotbed and home to one of the best programs in Montana.
“(The community) likes basketball,” fourth-year Vikings coach Sam Tudor said with a smile. “I mean, what else do you do in the winter in Bigfork?”
Joking aside, Bigfork has built a staggering tradition in recent years, going 109-12 in the last five seasons and reaching the state tournament three of its last four tries, including a runner-up finish in 2016. And this year’s squad might be the best one yet, entering the postseason 18-0 with an average margin of victory in excess of 30 points per game and one of the best offenses, regardless of classification, in the state.
The program’s sustained excellence — which includes the Kurt Paulson-coached teams that won 39 games from 2011-13 — has turned home games into big happenings in Bigfork. Games include pre-produced video introductions of the home team’s players and are held at a freshly renovated, state-of-the-art gym. Combine that with enthusiastic crowds that routinely fill every available seat and you get one of the premier basketball atmospheres anywhere.
“It’s probably one of the best communities for games,” Bigfork senior Beau Santistevan said. “When we have home games, the gym is packed, and we’ve seen, as the year’s gone on, the gym just gets fuller and fuller.”
Bigfork fans are even helping fill gyms outside of town.
“We have, sometimes, more fans (on the road) than the home team does,” junior point guard Anders Epperly said. “We know our fans travel well and they support us.”
The fanatical following and community interest have a lot to do with Bigfork’s budding basketball tradition, although it has made some parts of Tudor’s job more challenging.
“It’s tough to be a part of this program,” Tudor said. “I had a lot of kids come out that aren’t with us and they’re good players.”
“Every year, it seems like this might be the year where we’re rebuilding and, boy, it’s never happened,” he continued. “Someone always steps up or a couple (players) are ready to step up to the plate and they’re ready to play.”
The regular replenishing of the roster has also given Tudor and the Vikings an unusually deep lineup, which is extremely rare at small, Class B schools. Nine players regularly see action for Bigfork despite a school-wide enrollment of around 300 students.
“It’s really special,” Tudor said. “I would say even when we play the (Class) A, the AA schools, our bench easily rivals theirs.”
The depth also breeds intense competition among teammates, invaluable for a team that has rarely been tested by its opponents so far this year. Only five of the Vikings’ 18 wins have come by less than 20 points.
“There’s nine of us out there and we’re all competing for the starting spot every single practice, before every single game,” Santistevan said. “So practice gets pretty competitive.”
“All of our guys could start for any team in the state, I feel like,” Epperly added.
The latest member of a tradition-rich Montana sports family, Epperly is the Viking most often tasked with spreading the ball to all of Bigfork’s offensive options, and he’s done so better than nearly any player in Montana ever has.
Epperly has started as Bigfork’s point guard since his freshman year and was named all-state as a sophomore. Entering the Feb. 16 game against Missoula Loyola, he had compiled 481 career assists, 10th-most in state history. He had 19 dimes in a win over Thompson Falls earlier this season and is averaging more than eight assists per game as a junior. He is on pace to break the state assist record of 691 before the end of next season.
“Anders gets us running, and sometimes they get to sharing the ball and it’s just beautiful,” Tudor said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch when they get in that mode, and Anders is usually the instigator for that.”
“Tudor describes us as like a pinball machine sometimes,” junior Logan Gilliard said. “We’re just moving the ball really fast and you don’t see that a lot.”
Epperly is a capable scorer, averaging more than 12 points per game, but the Vikings’ offense comes primarily from Gilliard (13 points per game) and 6-foot-7 big man Santistevan, the team’s leading scorer at more than 16 a night. In a Feb. 10 win against Thompson Falls, Santistevan scored 36 and nearly single-handedly put the Blue Hawks away with a 15-point third quarter. The player Santistevan is today — a likely college athlete and an all-state performer as a junior — is a far cry from the gangly freshman Tudor first saw four years ago.
“If you would have watched Beau play as a freshman, he was always falling down,” Tudor remembered. “We just had simple talks with him, like, ‘You’ve got to learn balance and you’ve got to learn coordination and you’ve got to learn strength.’”
“He’s a lot stronger, and it’s a credit to him and the work he put in to get where he’s at.”
The Vikings had basically the exact same roster a season ago, going 19-6 without a single senior. That team lost in the divisional tournament, falling to both Anaconda and Loyola — losses it has already avenged this year — but it was over the summer when the coaches and players started to recognize that they had a chance to be remarkable this season.
Because of the renovations at Bigfork’s gym, the team had no offseason home and would regularly travel to Flathead and Glacier high schools in Kalispell for open gyms. The Vikings also played in summer tournaments against teams from much larger schools. Tudor recalled one game, against Class AA state title contender Missoula Hellgate, from over the summer in Missoula.
“We’re beating Hellgate and Beau decides to go in out of nowhere and dunk it on Hellgate,” he said. “And as a coach, you look at that going, ‘Wow, we’re competing at this level and he’s going to do that?’ It’s pretty impressive.”
Santistevan, too, recalls some ‘wow’ moments from the summer.
“We went to our first tournaments this summer and played a pretty good Class A school and some AA schools, and we beat them by like 20 or something,” he said. “And I think we all just looked around, like, ‘We might have something here.’”
No one around the program, however, is taking anything for granted the rest of the year, even if their fans are starting to sense another championship. Tudor, who took over for Josh Downey in the season after the last state title, is trying to keep things loose for the rest of his team’s ride, no matter where it ends.
“I always come back to, and my assistants always come back to, we have to enjoy it,” he said. “We have to have fun. These kids have put in the work … I think they’ve put in enough work where they should be recognized at the state level.”
Bigfork’s postseason begins Feb. 22 at the Western B divisional tournament in Ronan. The Class B state tournament is March 8-10 in Missoula.