There are few sports experiences in Montana like a crosstown basketball game at Flathead High School.
The tradition dates back only a dozen years, but the unseasonably warm and uncomfortably cramped gym on the west side of downtown Kalispell oozes with energy when the Glacier Wolfpack arrive as the opposition. The bleachers burst with orange, black, green and blue, and the balconies draped over three sides of the floor give the competitors the sense that they are surrounded.
The gymnasium, built in 1949, seats more than 2,100 fans in what seems like an impossibly small space — just 22,000 square feet — with little room out-of-bounds and fans so close they can almost reach out and grab a player running past them. On the nights when the gym fills in, like for the intra-Kalispell rivalry games held there last week, the place practically pulses.
Mark Harkins was an assistant coach at Flathead in the years before Glacier High School opened in 2007 and he was named the school’s first, and so far only, head boys basketball coach. And every year, when he takes his team south down U.S. 93 to the home of the Braves, he sends his boys onto the court before tipoff to watch the 2,000-plus fans living and dying with every possession of a junior varsity game.
“It’s amazing,” Harkins said on Jan. 27, three days after his team went into Flathead’s home and pulled out an unlikely victory. “You just don’t get to play in that kind of environment … (it) is so fun to play in.”
That his teams will play with emotion, Harkins said, is a given. But what kind of emotion exactly is harder to predict, and, for his team and the Glacier girls one night earlier, the emotions in the first half-plus were not the ones most conducive to success.
“We played timid, we didn’t have our same energy and spunk, and we weren’t confident,” Wolfpack girls coach Amanda Cram said of her team’s first half on Jan. 23. “If anything, those first 16 minutes were to get the wiggles out.”
Cram, a former assistant who was leading her team into crosstown for the first time, followed Harkins’ advice and soaked in the crowd before the game tipped but was still “pretty surprised at just how different it felt” once the action started heating up. Her team, on the other hand, was a little late to catch fire.
Flathead (2-7, 1-4 Western AA) trailed 15-11 early in the second quarter but the underdog Bravettes took it to their rivals the rest of the half and Glacier trailed Flathead 27-17 after those first 16 wiggly minutes. In the locker room, Cram made a few strategic tweaks but more than anything told her youthful team that the situation they found themselves in was not much different than what they expected.
“We’re still talking about teenagers experiencing that atmosphere for the first time,” she said. “One thing we talked about throughout the week is that this is crosstown. No matter what happens, you are in the game, we just have to keep battling every minute.”
The Wolfpack (4-5, 3-2) were more assertive and energetic right out of the locker room, and while Flathead’s lead would get as big as nine points midway through the third quarter, Glacier was now the team dictating the action. The Bravettes lead was down to 35-34 after three quarters and Ellie Keller completed the comeback with a three-point play midway through the fourth to put Glacier back in front.
Keller is one of just two Glacier players with significant varsity experience prior to this year, and just like she did one year ago the junior point guard took it upon herself to silence the Flathead crowd and lead her team to victory. Keller scored 13 points in this year’s matchup, all in the second half, after scoring 16 in a runaway win last season.
“She is a player that doesn’t doubt herself and understands when she needs to step up and do more for her team than just dictate the offense,” Cram said. “She’s a special athlete where she’s able to be confident and poised, and she’ll do whatever her team needs her to do.”
Glacier would not trail again after Keller’s late three-point play and hang on for a 51-49 win, their fifth in a row in the series.
And if anything, one could reason, the boys game one night later would give Glacier a chance to learn a lesson from the girls and take pains to avoid a slow start. If only it were that easy.
“It’s typical crosstown,” Harkins said. “Something’s always going to happen in crosstown.”
Flathead (2-7, 1-4) jumped ahead of the Wolfpack boys 23-14 at halftime, suffocating Glacier on the offensive end and methodically constructing a seemingly insurmountable advantage. At the end of three quarters, the Braves led 33-24 and had held the Wolfpack to no more than 10 points in any of the first three periods.
“Our effort was never in question, it was our execution,” Harkins said of his team’s struggles. “A lot of that had to do with the defense (Flathead) played … but we finally figured some things out.”
Glacier (6-3, 3-2) found a quick rhythm in the fourth quarter, pushing the pace a bit and scoring the first five points to shrink the lead to four only to see Flathead stretch back out to a 39-30 advantage.
That’s when Drew Engellant, like Keller one night earlier, took matters into his own hands. The senior big man scored 14 of his game-high 15 points in the second half and got 10 of them in the fourth quarter, attacking the basket ferociously on back-to-back possessions to pull the Wolfpack to within 39-38, just before Jaxson Olsen scored in transition to break a 39-all tie. Engellant would add four free throws in the final minutes to make the final score 45-40 as Glacier ended the game on a 15-1 run.
Engellant also led the Wolfpack in assists, and while his play impressed his coach, it was his ability to keep his teammates composed and impose his will on the game when it mattered most that was even more significant.
“Drew’s a great leader and a great competitor and I think he said our team needs a spark and he gave that to us,” Harkins said. “It’s what leaders and competitors do.”
“That’s probably what I’m most proud of, is (our team) not giving up, not throwing in the towel,” he continued. “They didn’t quit, they kept battling, and I think the crowd got behind them and we got some momentum going.”
After the boys game, the Glacier student section rushed onto the newly installed hardwood at the stuffy old gym and celebrated with their classmates. Seeing his players in the middle of the mob and sensing the Flathead faithful, stunned by a second straight heartbreaking loss, looking on, Harkins pulled his boys from the middle of the scrum and ushered them into the locker room. But the feeling doesn’t subside.
“To say it’s just another game, nobody’s going to believe you,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”