While most eyes were focused elsewhere in the Bigfork basketball program, Colt Thorness was dominating, quietly clobbering anyone who stepped on the court to challenge him.
Standing 6-foot-7 with springy legs and a passion for rim protection, Thorness could, by his own account, “score at will” in his sophomore and junior seasons, and his undefeated team dominated all comers. Thorness and his teammates played together for at least two full seasons, a rare stretch of consistency that allowed them to gel seamlessly and perform at an exceptionally high level.
Yes, those were heady years at Bigfork, when the Vikings won Class B state championships in 2018 and 2019 behind a senior class that gobbled up nearly every minute of every game, and Thorness and his teammates on Bigfork’s junior varsity squad crushed the unsuspecting youngsters who had the misfortune of playing them.
“This year it’s totally different,” Thorness said after Bigfork’s varsity team beat Thompson Falls 45-36 in the third-place game of the District 7B tournament on Feb. 22. “The game speed’s totally different. We definitely weren’t used to it at the beginning of the year.”
In fairness, no one was used to much of anything at the beginning of the year in Bigfork. The eight-member senior class that won the two titles had left the program and so had their coach, Sam Tudor, who resigned with an eye-popping 111-14 career record during a five-year tenure that came on the heels of an undefeated run to another state championship in 2014.
Enter John Hollow as head coach in 2019-20 and a roster full of players like Thorness who had been in the program for years but never played significant varsity minutes. Despite his limited experience — junior varsity players are allowed to play up to two quarters in varsity games — Thorness said he went into the season-opening Coyote Classic in Shelby with goals in line with the Bigfork teams of the recent past.
“I was super confident we were going to be really good and that we could possibly go for another state championship,” he said. “I never lost hope and I still haven’t, but after Shelby I realized that I have to work a heck of a lot harder to get us there.”
In Shelby, the Vikings lost to Malta 65-52 on Dec. 13 and then fell 41-28 against Belt, a Class C school, the next day. The two losses matched Bigfork’s combined total the last two seasons. And while Bigfork managed to win a three-way tiebreaker and finish first in District 7B in the regular season, the Vikings enter the Western B Divisional tournament with a 10-10 record and as the district’s No. 3 seed after an upset home loss to St. Ignatius on Feb. 20.
Hollow already had loads of head coaching experience when he took the job at Bigfork last spring, boasting successful prior stints at Ronan, Belgrade and Helena, where he led the Bengals to a hoops renaissance and a third-place finish in Class AA in 2014. But the rebuild at Bigfork is something entirely different. Combine the lack of varsity experience with a new coach implementing a new system and it was not hard to predict that this year would be a struggle, even if no one inside the program cares to make excuses.
“I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t high expectations but it’s better than the alternative, which is coming into a place that doesn’t expect to win,” Hollow said. “If you would have asked me a month ago, I would have told you we were going to be in a whole different spot, but we’ll see what our guys are made of.”
Hollow believed his team was turning a corner midway through the season and the results on the court validated that belief. Bigfork lost once again immediately after the Shelby tournament, a 37-35 setback in overtime to conference rival Eureka, then went on a five-game winning streak. The Vikings were 8-4 overall entering February but this month has been extremely unkind. Bigfork lost six of seven before beating Thompson Falls on Feb. 22 in the District 7B third-place game and lost a lot of those games in frustrating fashion.
“I thought we were playing really, really well in the middle of January and then all of a sudden, on top of having a tough schedule, we just haven’t found ways to win basketball games,” Hollow said. “I think we led in the fourth quarter in every game (during the 1-6 stretch).”
Part of this month’s struggles could be because the Vikings are playing without two of their top players, Eli Hines and Levi Taylor, although Taylor could return if Bigfork qualifies for the Class B state tournament. It will be a long road to get one of two qualifying spots at the three-day, double-elimination divisional tourney Feb. 27-29 in Hamilton, but the competition appears to be wide open. Bigfork’s opening-round opponent is District 6B No. 2 seed Anaconda, a team they beat 66-62 on Dec. 21, and the Vikings have wins over five of the other seven teams in the field, suffering only a narrow loss to 6B champion Deer Lodge (Bigfork has not played Arlee this year).
Thorness is the center of the Bigfork offense and defense, the latter of which is allowing just 46.9 points per game this year and is a passion of the Vikings’ new coach. Thorness is a deft shot blocker in the middle of Bigfork’s zone and has adjusted nicely to the speed and physicality of varsity basketball since the beginning of the year, limiting the foul trouble that plagued him earlier this season. And on the other end of the court, the Vikings have a familiar name to help feed him the basketball. Freshman guard Isak Epperly, the younger brother of all-time Montana assist leader and 2019 Bigfork graduate Anders Epperly, is a gifted scorer, dangerous shooter and composed ball handler who plays nearly every minute for the Vikings.
“I think when it’s all said and done he’s going to be a phenomenal player,” Hollow said. “He just loves basketball; does all the things to get better at it.”
Senior Wyatt Reichenbach and junior Isaac Bjorge give the Vikings a couple other solid options on the offensive end, and against Thompson Falls on Feb. 22 it was another freshman, Bryce Gilliard, who was Bigfork’s leading scorer.
“I feel like we’re really deep,” Thorness said after the win. “We put in one of our guys who’s been on the end of the bench all season (Gilliard) and he was controlling everyone else on the court. He had a great game.”
The future in Bigfork looks even brighter than the present, but for the team’s three seniors the focus is on what’s right in front of them. It’s the first opportunity players like Thorness have to suit up in the postseason, to potentially play in a state tournament, and to deny their rivals a chance to enjoy something few teams have in recent years: a win over the mighty Vikings.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that we could make the state tournament,” Hollow said. “But nobody feels sorry for us. Bigfork beat a lot of teams by 30 or 40 points (in the last two years) and every time we play there’s a big bullseye on our back. We’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
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