Two weeks ago, the joint girls and boys State basketball tournament was cut short in the face of the coronavirus emergency – the first time the Montana High School Association had ever done so. The decision came on the Friday night, before Saturday’s finals – so, also for the first time, the semi-final winners were named co-champions.
That distinctive outcome caused me to reflect on championships past. The records for organized basketball in Montana go back to 1911; in that year, when there was just one classification, Billings beat Anaconda 27-20 for the title. Anaconda came back the next year to top Flathead, 49-13, for the championship; and Sweet Grass County took the third crown, 26-14 over Billings. (Scores were much lower in those early years than now: In 1923, Custer County beat Missoula by all of 11-6 for the title.)
In 1933 the State was split into two divisions. Park beat Bozeman 42-27 in Class A that year, and Butte took Anaconda 21-19 for the Class B trophy. Then, in 1950 the State expanded to three classes. In Class A, Butte Central beat Helena, 63-59, while Fort Benton beat Fairfield, 59-51, in Class B and Nashua edged Whitehall, 40-39, for Class C.
In 1956 Montana went to four divisions, creating the large-school AA class. It briefly went back to three in 1964, in an attempt to curb travel by grouping smaller schools with nearby bigger schools. But the four-division hierarchy returned in 1970 has stayed unchanged to this day. Only once has a team reached the century mark in the state playoffs. That came in 1983 when Park High whipped Powell County, 104-64. Park High almost did it again when it nipped Butte Central 99-97 for the 1985 class A championship.
But coaches started to discover that defense could win games, too. Jefferson High School, under Hall of Fame Coach Dick Norden, was a master at teaching defense. His Panthers won the 1983 Class B title by 38-36 over Fairfield, before the three-point shot was put into effect.
Lodge Grass put together a string of great Class B teams in the 1980s. It beat Red Lodge, 62-58, for the 1980 title; finished second in 1981 to Frenchtown, 58-63; edged Circle, 58-55, for the 1982 crown; lost to Chinook, 66-67, in the 1986 final; and won three straight championships from 1988 to 1990, the last coming over Whitehall, 94-72.
Then Fairfield took over, winning five Class B titles from 1991-1997 — beating Conrad, 56-53, in 1991; Conrad again in 1992 by 53-51; Columbus in 1994, 76-63; Arlee in 1995, 58-46; and Glasgow in 1997, 73-60. It raised the trophy again in 2004, beating Forsyth, 71-63; and added one more in 2009, by 64-60 over Shelby. It leads Class B with nine total state championships; Cut Bank has eight.
The Eagles had a chance to win it all again this year, before the tournament was cut short. They settled for sharing the championship with Lodge Grass.