MISSOULA — There is something surprisingly intimate about an empty arena.
Just before midnight on the evening of March 10 at the University of Montana’s Dahlberg Arena, the 7,500-seat gym was nearly barren. The thousands of cheering fans, most wearing blue and red, the colors of Bigfork High School, had been shepherded to the exits. The cheerleaders, the pep band, the friends and family who piled onto the court after the trophy presentation, they were gone now, too. And the thick, smothering tension that accompanied every moment of the Class B state championship game, it too had dissipated.
All that remained were a few arena workers, a handful of reporters typing away, and a smattering of Bigfork players and coaches, bathing in the buoyant freedom of success and not quite ready to let their dream season end.
At one point, 6-foot-6 Bigfork senior Beau Santistevan meandered over to the now-empty Vikings bench. He was there with a few friends— invited guests to Bigfork’s private postgame party — and he was holding a basketball. Nearly an hour earlier, as he and his teammates were surrounded on the court by well-wishers, Santistevan was clutching the game ball with two hands, a sacred sports duty entrusted to only the worthiest of victors.
And as he stood by the bench, unfazed by the 26 grueling minutes he had played against a worthy Shelby squad, Santistevan decided he still wasn’t done putting up shots. He could do so now without screaming fans in his ears, without defenders pounding his body and without the weight of expectations tugging at him. It was just this small crowd, this one basketball and this one hoop.
But it wasn’t perfect yet.
Santistevan, before he fired his first postgame shot, picked up his cellphone, found the perfect soundtrack for the moment and pushed play. The first song was one older than every Bigfork player, but one that every athlete, of any age, relishes hearing above any other. And as Freddie Mercury rolled his way through the verse with an impassioned crescendo, the chorus said everything the Vikings wanted to hear.
“We are the champions.”
Bigfork’s run through the regular season had felt like a coronation, with just five of their 18 wins coming by less than 20 points. But the postseason was a somewhat different story. The Vikings were tested, a couple of times, starting with a riveting double-overtime win against Anaconda in the divisional semifinals.
They cruised through the state tournament’s first two rounds, but the Vikings (24-0) were challenged again in the championship game by a Shelby team that was vastly improved from the one they had beaten handily early in the season.
Yes, Bigfork took a lead 24 seconds into the title game on a silky smooth Anders Epperly spin move and finish, and was never so much as tied after that, but the Coyotes found their shooting stroke in the second half and came barreling after the Vikings. Shelby (21-5) shot 1 for 11 from 3-point range in the first half, but then made 7 of 13 triples in the second half, including five in the fourth quarter. With two minutes to play, Aaron White and Logan Watson swished back-to-back 3-pointers, cutting Bigfork’s lead to 52-51.
“We knew that all the teams we played here were going to make runs,” Santistevan said. “A big thing for us all tournament was keeping our composure.”
The Vikings did just that, with Epperly earning a trip to the free-throw line on the following possession and hitting both shots. After getting a stop, Santistevan went to the line and made two more to stretch the lead back out to five. The Bigfork big man was a perfect 11 for 11 from the charity stripe.
Shelby, however, would not relent. White made another 3-pointer with 10 seconds to go to cut the lead to 59-56. Epperly was fouled five seconds later but missed the first free throw. His coach couldn’t watch the second one.
“I was actually watching the (scoreboard) screen,” Sam Tudor said. “And I was just listening (for the crowd).”
Epperly’s second free throw kissed the front rim, bounced straight up, and landed softly back on the rim before spilling through to clinch the championship. Epperly raised his arms above his head as the final shot went in, and after Shelby’s last-gasp heave caromed away, the junior sprinted to the bench with his arms still raised in triumph.
“I just wanted to find someone to hug,” Epperly said. “It feels great. We’re such a close group and we all love each other.”
The Vikings’ 60-56 win marked their 24th consecutive victory and was a fitting showcase of the dazzling skill, uncommon depth and remarkable maturity the team displayed all season. Santistevan led Bigfork with 18 points and nine rebounds, and battled back-and-forth with Shelby star T.J. Reynolds, who finished with 22 points but faced late foul trouble and had to sit for a sizable stretch of the fourth quarter.
“There was something different about Beau this tournament,” Tudor said. “He was not going to be denied … When we needed a basket, it was Beau.”
“When Reynolds went at him, he went back at Reynolds, and the foul trouble with Reynolds was a huge factor in that game.”
Epperly was also excellent for the Vikes, scoring 15 points, grabbing four rebounds and handing out five assists. The speedy guard ended the first quarter with an acrobatic, buzzer-beating three-point play and twice drove to set up Logan Gilliard 3-pointers when the Coyotes were making a push.
“I think the bigger the moment, the more (Epperly) is going to perform,” Tudor said. “He’s always in control and that’s what’s so impressive about him.”
Tudor, Bigfork’s uniquely unflappable fourth-year coach, stuck with the nine-man rotation he had used all year, and it was clearly a factor against a Shelby team that had only six players take the court for meaningful minutes. Seven different Vikings scored in the title game, and Tudor credited Bigfork’s robust youth program for developing not just great players, but the kind of players who match their coach’s demeanor in the biggest moments. Anders’ father, Jim Epperly, and grandfather, the late hall of fame coach Bill Epperly, had worked with these Bigfork players from an early age.
“It was always composure, composure, composure,” Tudor said of the youth coaching. “Even if they didn’t work on fundamentals, they were working on composing themselves, and it makes good young men.”
The Vikings, too, credited a robust summer schedule the team played that included frequent matchups against the state’s largest and most talented teams.
“Repetition,” Gilliard said when asked how he and his teammates fended off Shelby’s comeback effort. “We were faced with that all summer long, playing hard teams this summer. We’ve been in a lot of close games — we knew we could pull it out.”
Gilliard also reached double-figures with 12 points in the championship game, adding eight rebounds. Clayton and Colton Reichenbach each scored five points, and seniors Chase Chappuis (three points) and Logan Taylor (two points) provided the rest of the scoring.
The state championship is Bigfork’s second in school history, and both have come in undefeated seasons, as the Vikings went 26-0 to win the state title in 2014. Tudor, who began his tenure as head coach the season after the last championship, took Bigfork to the title game in 2016, where the Vikings lost to Choteau.
The Vikings program is an incredible 115-12 in the last five seasons and will be among the favorites to win the state title again next year since Bigfork returns six of nine rotation players and four of five starters.
Tudor, though, was not thinking about next year on Saturday night. The coach, who called his players “a special group of kids,” was his poised, thoughtful self after the game, even though he claimed to be fraying from the inside.
“I can’t say enough about these boys,” he said. “I’m just so happy for them.”
“And when I say happy, I’m just elated; a lot of emotion. I know it doesn’t show, but it will when no one’s looking.”