Native teams have played a prominent and exciting role in Montana high school basketball for decades, all the way back in time to the famed Fort Shaw Indian girls team of 1904. Today, the recent Native American Classic in Havre, Montana continues this long tradition.
This year’s edition of the two-day affair was again played in the Armory Gymnasium on the campus of Montana State University-Northern; the 2,000-seat arena was packed with avid fans both days especially during the evening sessions. The classic held annually in Havre, one of several such basketball events across the Big Sky Country, attracted eight predominately Native high school teams from three northern Montana Indian Reservation, as well as a Canadian Reserve in Alberta.
Boys’ and girls’ teams in the field included Harlem and Hays-Lodgepole high schools from the Fort Belknap Reservation; Rocky Boy and Box Elder representing the Rocky Boy Reservation; Heart Butte; the Browning junior varsity; and nearby Valier from the Blackfeet Reservation. For international flavor, also present was the Kainai High School of the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta.
In Montana, there are four different classifications for high schools, and these classifications help dictate which schools are paired off in specific districts and divisions. These classifications are AA, A, B and C, and are based on each high school’s enrollment and by guidelines set down by the Montana High School Association—a school cannot play against another school’s team that is either two steps above or below its own classification. Class AA high schools in the state have an enrollment of 826 students, Class A schools enrollments range from 340 to 825 students, Class B 122-339 and Class C 1-119.
Browning, with a high school enrollment of a little more than 470, is a Class A school, while Harlem and Rocky are both Class C, with the rest of the Montana teams being Class C. Kainai High School participates in the 4A Southern Alberta League including teams from Lethbridge, Magrath, Cardston and Raymond, Alberta. Because of its enrollment size, Browning could send only its junior varsity squads to the Classic.
In years past, each of these schools has won at least one state championship in either the boys’ or girls’ basketball division, with the lone exception being been Valier. Browning leads the way with five titles (boys in 1980, 2001, 2002 and 2008) and girls (1996). Box Elder (1990 boys and 1998 girls); Hays-Lodgepole (2002 and 2007 boys) and Heart Butte (2000 and 2001 boys) all have captured two state championships, while Harlem and Rocky Boy have had one each—both boys, in 2002 and 2010 respectively. With that kind of record, you can see why there was so much excitement in the Armory gym for the Classic in early December.
In boys action on Friday, the Rocky Boy Northern Stars and Harlem Wildcats won both of their contests against Class C competition—as well they should have. The Stars opened the two-day affair against their traditional rival, Box Elder. The schools are less than 15 miles apart in north-central Montana, with Rocky Boy on the reservation and Box Elder just off of it.
Led by a balanced scoring attack that landed eight Stars in the scoring column, Rocky Boy held off the Bears in a 70-63 classic, thanks to 17 points from six-foot-six-inch Chontay Standing Rock. Box Elder was led by Randall Gardipee with 13 points and Skylar Parisian with 11. After falling behind by as much as 11 points in the first half, Box Elder battled back into a 58-all tie midway through the final period before Rocky Boy pulled away for the win.
The Wildcats broke away from Valier in the second period in Friday play to race to an 84-46 win over the Panthers behind Buck , who led them with 21 points as Jordan Snow added 13. Tatsey and Stoke led Valier with 14 and 10 points each.
Rocky Boy again had balanced scoring in its second game Saturday as the Stars used a big second quarter to pull away from Heart Butte in a 72-51 win over the Warriors. Rocky Boy led 17-14 at the end of the first period but expanded the margin to 20 points by halftime, coasting to the win. Eleven Stars scored, led by Junior Day Child with 12 points. Warrior Clarence McNabb added 10.
The Browning junior varsity, which has a strong sports program that features two of Montana’s best cross-country teams (they’ve won 22 boys’ and eight girls’ state titles) also came away with two wins at the classic. The Indians defeated Hays-Lodgepole 59-51 behind 14 points from Caleb Calfrobe as the Thunderbirds got 16 from senior Trent Kirkaldie. But he didn’t help their cause, hitting just 7 of 25 freethrow attempts.
On Friday Box Elder got scoring from all twelve players in a 56-31 win over the Browning junior varsity as Buffalo had 11 in the win as Wolf Chief and Caitlin Gamble both added 10. Browning had no one with more than six points in the loss.
On Saturday, Box Elder got by Valier 74-65, aided by 14 points from guard Jesse Ramos, 11 from Gardipee and 10 points from Dakota Standing Rock. The Panthers were paced by Tim Stoke with 21 and Joelel Tatsey with 19 in the loss.
Harlem also tangled with a traditional rival that same day, going up against the Hays-Lodgepole Thunderbirds from the southern part of the Fort Belknap Reservation after defeating Valier the day before. Along with freshman Clay Doney, seniors Skyler Speakthunder and Bud Buck helped the Wildcats pummel the T-Birds, outscoring them 46-18 after intermission for an 84-51 win. Jeff Sorrel and Nolan Werk led Hays-Lodgepole with 12 and 11 points respectively.
Browning was not that hospitable to their Canadian counterparts Friday as they defeated Kainai 59-41 after leading by just eight points at intermission. Cheered on by their girls’ team, the Warriors got good efforts from Wylie Gros Ventre Boy and Travis Eagle Speaker; the Lady Warriors held up a sign that amused the crowd that read, let’s go warriors!!…eh. Heart Butte defeated Kainai 53-28 in first-day play.
On the girls’ side of the Classic on Saturday, both Box Elder and Valier were impressive as the Lady Bears romped past Rocky Boy 69-36 behind playmaker Aricka Wolf Chief and forward Brandi Buffalo. Wolf Chief had 19 points and Buffalo 11 as Box Elder raced out to a 42-19 halftime lead and were never headed. Sabrina LaForge led the Morning Stars with ten points in the loss.
Valier’s Shaunell Davis had 17 points in a 44-38 win over Rocky Boy as the Panthers held off the Morning Stars after building an 11-point lead entering the final quarter. Boumans added 12 for Valier as Rocky Boy got 10 points from Sabrina LaForge in the loss.
Browning rebounded from their Friday loss with a vengeance during Saturday’s play. After having little problem with Kainai as the Lady Indians took a 21-2 lead after the opening quarter and expanded that to 38-6 by halftime, and winning 78-11 over their outclassed Canadian neighbors. Rachel Heptner had 17 points for the winners as nine other Browning players hit the scoring column. Kaini got five points from Bailey Goodstriker and four from Katelyn Good Striker in the loss.
Valier overcame an early Harlem lead to get past the Class B LadyCats 53-38, led by the fine all-around play of forward Shaunell Davis and fellow senior Turq Eaglespeaker. Harlem raced to a 17-8 lead at the end of the first quarter before the Panthers rallied behind the ballhawking Davis, who wound up with 14 points. Also commendable was the inside play of Eagle Speaker with 10 points; Valier was led by Abbie Boumans with 17.
Harlem earned a split of weekend games as they beat reservation rival Hays-Lodgepole 56-48 behind the very even scoring of LadyCat teammates JayLynn Allen, Teche’ Ereaux and Monique Doney, who each had 13 points in the win over the Lady T-Birds. Hays-Lodgepole got 15 points apiece from Kristi Runs Above and Chasanna Doney during the contest.
The Lady Thunderbirds bounced back with a 63-38 win over Heart Butte 63-38 Saturday as they built a 34-14 halftime lead and had to survive a third period Lady Warriors rally. Shakayla White Cow led Hays-Lodgepole with 19 as Runs Above added 14 points. Heart Butte, which added four junior high players to their roster to bring it up to strength, was led by eighth grader Taylor Calf Boss Ribs with 11. Heart Butte also earned a split of games with a 53-28 win over Kainai Saturday.
Overall, the Classic was again a success. The competition was good, old friendships among fans and players were renewed, and the student athletes came away with a little more respect of their opponents and other schools from different reservations—and, in this case, at least one different country. The Classic, and events like it, will surely continue benefit Indian country for years to come.