The state of Montana will crown its high school state champions on March 14, and when the winners collect their trophies around the state, three former champs from the Flathead Valley hope to be chasing an even bigger prize in the college ranks.
It’s been three years since Jaxen Hashely carried Glacier High School to its one and only Class AA state championship, just as long since Kiara Burlage helped Columbia Falls snap a 34-year-old drought in Class A, and two years since Beau Santistevan captained Bigfork to an undefeated season. The years since high school have seen all three players take different paths, but the results have been much the same. All three have kept on winning, and as the pressure-packed, one-and-done college basketball postseason gets underway, all three have their teams dreaming about another season-ending celebration.
If the 6-foot Burlage wasn’t the star of the 2016-17 Wildkats team that went 23-1 and blew out Hardin to win the state title, it’s only because there was so much competition for the role.
Burlage was a huge part of a nearly unprecedented run of girls sports success at the school, leading three teams to state championships — two in volleyball and one in basketball — and piling up a bevy of individual accolades across three sports. In basketball alone, she was the two-time Most Valuable Player in the Northwest A conference and a two-time first team all-state honoree, and she and her Wildkats teammates won state trophies all four of her varsity years, going a combined 88-8.
Three other contributors from that 2017 team are having success in college hoops — Peyton Kehr and Syndey Hovde at MSU-Northern; Dani Douglas at Vassar — and another, Cydney Finberg, led the University of Providence’s volleyball team to the NAIA national tournament last fall. But it is Burlage who has her team in the thick of the title chase in the country’s most competitive conference.
Lewis-Clark State College is 19-9 and was ranked 21st in the most recent NAIA national poll, one of four Frontier Conference teams in the top 25, and Burlage is averaging 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds to pace the Warriors in both categories. She closed the regular season with a 25-point, 10-rebound effort in an 82-75 double-overtime win over defending national champion Montana Western, her second straight 25-point game and her fourth double-double in the last five.
It’s a far cry from where Burlage was three years ago, when Lewis-Clark State was recruiting her as a multi-disciplinary track athlete (Burlage sprinted, threw the javelin and competed in the long and triple jumps in high school) before basketball coach Brian Orr poached Burlage for his squad. For two years, the C-Falls standout played mostly a supporting role, averaging 10 minutes as a freshman and 15 as a sophomore, before a spate of graduations created an opening in the starting lineup.
“It was pretty hard,” Burlage said of spending most of two years on the bench. “Every player that goes to college was used to being a star on their team.”
Last summer, Burlage prepared herself physically for a larger role and honed her repertoire of post moves to become one of the most efficient scorers in the conference. She is shooting 54.4 percent from the field, has connected on 23-of-50 3-pointers and 80 percent of her free throws.
“I’ve done a lot better in the scoring aspect this year because that’s a role I needed to fill,” Burlage said. “The biggest thing in a team sport is everyone has to be on the same page, everyone has to be engaged. I just do what needs to be done.”
Lewis-Clark is the No. 3 seed in the Frontier Conference tournament, which gets underway on March 4. The Warriors will have Montana Tech in the opening round at home in Lewiston, Idaho.
Bigfork’s storybook 2017-18 season was perfect. The Vikings did not lose a game, won the state championship in nearby Missoula in front of a large and jubilant crowd, and drove home alongside Flathead Lake on top of the Montana basketball world.
The summer after, though, was a reality check for that team’s lone senior starter. There was little interest from four-year colleges in the 6-foot-7 big man, even in his home state.
Junior college basketball is a major part of the landscape nationwide, but there are no such programs within a few hours of the Flathead Valley, so when places like Dawson Community College in Glendive come calling in Northwest Montana, the first step is explaining the benefit of a two-year hoops apprenticeship. Dawson coach Joe Peterson told Santistevan that if he decided to play for him for two years, the schools who were making lukewarm offers in 2018 were going to have to pony up in 2020.
“We’re going to develop you and you’re going to become a much better player,” Santistevan said Peterson told him. “And they’re going to pay for it in scholarships.”
Santistevan has no firm plans for next season, but after two productive years in Glendive there is no doubt that Peterson’s words will prove prophetic. The Bigfork product is in the midst of a head-turning sophomore season, averaging 12.8 points and 5.9 rebounds in 20 minutes per game for the deep and talented Buccaneers, who are 26-7, went undefeated in the Mon-Dak Conference and have won 17 games in a row, including the Region XIII Championship game on Feb. 29. The win gave Dawson its first regional title in 49 years.
Santistevan is one of three captains for the Buccaneers and credits much of the team’s success to Peterson, who has brought together a roster filled with players from diverse backgrounds (Santistevan is one of just four Montanans on the team), all of whom are out to showcase their worth to a four-year college where they can play next year.
“We’re out for each other because we know with our team success will come individual success,” Santistevan said. “We’ve had quite a few guys sacrificing going out and getting theirs in order to get the W.”
Dawson will try and keep its historic season going on Thursday, March 5 in the North Central District Championship game against Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. The winner will move on to the NJCAA Division I national tournament, March 18-23 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
The gridiron was supposed to be where Hashley was spending his time in college.
A multi-talented big man, Hashley was great on the hardwood for the Wolfpack and an invaluable piece of the title-winning 2017 team, but Montana State University offered a football scholarship to the 6-foot-6, 240-pound defensive lineman and he was off to Bozeman. Hashley’s father, Doug, was a basketball legend for the Bobcats, but within two years of arriving on campus, the younger Hashley would be forced to change course in more ways than one.
Injuries had hampered him at Glacier, costing him part of his junior year in football and the entire basketball season, and recurring injuries prevented him from ever suiting up at MSU. Instead of ending his sports career, though, Hashley transferred to the University of Providence in Great Falls and has become a hoops star for one of the country’s best teams.
Hashley was the Frontier Conference’s co-Freshman of the Year last season and has started 28 games for the 23-7 Argos, averaging 12.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 62.3 percent from the field. Providence was ranked No. 10 in the country in the most recent NAIA Coaches’ Poll (Feb. 26) and began the Frontier Conference tournament against Montana Western on March 3, after the Beacon went to print.