A teary-eyed John Hollow stood off to the side of his Bigfork team’s third-place celebration early Saturday evening, taking in the scene.
The Vikings head coach was reminiscing on the year-long journey his team had just completed. It entailed a trip to Gonzaga University this past summer, offseason tournaments, weight training and open gyms.
It included a third-place game in which they were playing without multiple starters due to injuries or foul outs, yet they still prevailed 45-36 over Red Lodge to become the 2023 Class B third-place winners.
“These guys just showed so much grit and toughness,” Hollow said. “I’m super proud of them. They worked their asses off … they are reaping the benefit of their rewards.”
Some of Hollow’s recollections went back multiple years though, which is what led to the tears.
His mind brought him back to the core of Isak Epperly, Nick Walker, Bryce Gilliard, Landon Byerman and Levi Peterson — the team’s seniors. They came into the program at the same time as Hollow, right after Bigfork won back-to-back state titles in 2018 and 2019 under Sam Tudor.
“They let some guy from out of town move in and they bought in to what we were doing,” Hollow said. “At first, it wasn’t there, it wasn’t pretty the first year. It got better and it got better and it got better. I’ll remember these guys forever. I was the outsider that came in and they took me in.
“I’m speechless right now. I’m wiped out and I’m worn out and I’m so proud of them.”
The group went out in style, taking home some hardware that the seniors played a large part in getting.
Epperly was the leading scorer with 14 points, also pulling down a team-high seven rebounds. Byerman scored seven with another five rebounds. Gilliard fouled out late in the fourth quarter but was doing all the dirty work on the boards before that, finishing with five of his own.
It was their second time beating the Rams in the tournament, also ousting them from the winner’s bracket in the quarterfinals.
“They got us two times this tournament and although we were in both of those games and it felt like we could have won them right until the end, we didn’t,” Red Lodge head coach Todd Buchanan said. “Congrats to them.”
The Rams have no reason to hang their heads with the loss, though, returning to this stage for the first time since 1985.
While the goal once you get the tournament berth is always a title victory, of all teams in the field, that outcome was probably least important to the Rams. This team paved a path for sustainable success moving forward.
“We told our seniors tonight that the culture in Red Lodge is going to be more focused on basketball because of the passion, the focus and more than anything, the commitment that they made to put us in this position,” Buchanan said. “These kids lived, breathed and died for basketball for the last few months.
“And everyone says thank you to the coaches, the coaches are going to hear about it, but these kids deserve every bit of the credit … I forecast a lot of big runs for this Red Lodge program.”
The Rams lose just three seniors this offseason in Wyatt Goffena, Landen Tomlin and Jacob Stewart. Plus, they won’t have to worry about the Vikings anymore.
This was Bigfork’s last Class B run before converting into a Class A program next season.
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