By BLAKE HEMPSTEAD
On Thursday, Anaconda will embark on a journey that doesn’t happen in the Smelter City every year. Following their first divisional championship since 2005 last week at the Western B played in Ronan, whispers have begun to gain steam and grow to a dull roar. When is the last time we went to a state tournament? When was the last time we won a state championship or even played in a trophy game in the final tournament of the year?
Well thanks to the fantastic statistical data collected and archived by the late Tom White along with the information I’ve added, I have that information for you.
The last state championship occurred in the 1947-48 season, a 24-7 campaign capped with a 49-47 win over Billings. That team was coached by Anaconda’s Mike O’Leary while being assisted by Coley Vaughn and Mike Papich. Team members included Jerry Sneddon, a First-Team All State selection, Ed Kalafat, a Second-Team All State selection, Laurie LeClaire, a Third-Team All State selection, Gene Patch, Gene D’Angelo, Vincent Kovacich, Al Klemann, Ray Sherrill, Gene Burkey, Jerry Shandorf, Jim Murray, Mel Klemann, Frank Dorsey and Darrel Frigarrd.
With all due respect to the late John Cheek – who owns the career wins record for a coach (404-314 from 1952-80), O’Leary is widely respected and thought as the best coach in Anaconda High history. He won 63 percent (214-127) of his games from 1935-52 and coached three members of the Top 5 in all-time scoring at AHS (1, Ed Kalafat 1,614, 4, Wayne Estes 1,440 and 5, Jim Cordial 1,238). In a phone conversation with Kalafat last year, he lamented how he believed O’Leary was the best coach he ever had – a collegiate and professional career that was fulfilled at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Lakers.
In the last divisional championship in 2004-05, Anaconda came from behind in the second half to post a 61-51 win over Corvallis at Dale Berry Court in Hamilton. Team members included seniors Zane Kenney, Steve Antonich, Sam Corey, Zach Parks, juniors Rochi Estes and sophomores Tyler Hurley, Nate Lopez, Jake Orrino and Nick Hensley.
That team went 1-2 in the State A tournament after falling 53-51 to Glendive in the first round led by future Montana Grizzly great and current Montana Tech assistant coach Derek Selvig. The Copperheads beat Ronan 73-52 in the loser-out Friday before dropping a lopsided 70-52 loss to future consolation champion Sidney Saturday morning. Anaconda assistant coach Rochi Estes was a junior on that team, setting a school record with nine 3-pointers against Glendive in the first round loss. (Note: Derek Selvig told me years after that game he considered it one of the best shooting performances he’s ever seen as Estes made six of the nine after the half). Assistant coach Ron Estes was an assistant on the team at that time too led by head coach and current AHS vice principal and AD Allen Green.
Overall, Anaconda High has won three state championships (1912, 1934 and 1948) and was runner-up in five more (1933, 1936, 1940, 1956 and 1989). The last championship they played in was in Class A, a 79-70 loss to Park Co. (Livingston) at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula. Members of that team coached by Bill Sullivan and assistants Ed Derzay and Elmer Carosone included Mike Derzay, Cory Huot, Kurt Marthaller, Tony Huot, Dave McDonald, Shayne Skakles, Jim Stergar, Billy Sullivan, George Mattson, Craig Matosich and Scott Sturm.
The Copperheads had an up and down season before finding themselves late – a 6-4 league mark that landed them as the No. 3 seed in the 6B District tournament. However, getting their first win over Deer Lodge in the 6B semifinals may have been the motivation they needed to move forward. They lost a heartbreaking 53-50 decision to Missoula Loyola in the championship, a loss they would redeem in the Western B finals a week later with a dramatic 61-60 finish sealed with two Braxton Hill free throws with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation. All told, Anaconda finished the season winning 9-of-10 and are most certainly playing their best basketball at the right time. (Below is a tribute video from the Western B divisional championship run with radio calls from KANA 580 AM)
Anaconda will take on Whitehall in the first round of the State B tournament, a team that they’ve become very familiar with over the past few years.
Coming into the state tournament, AHS junior point guard Braxton Hill may be playing as good as anyone in Montana regardless of classification. He scored 79 points in the divisional, which according to the record books ranks second in a three-game divisional tournament behind Kalafat’s 88 points scored during the 1948-49 season. He’s already on pace to obliterate almost every offensive scoring record on the books including scoring average, total scoring and free throws attempted, made and overall percentage.
Currently, Hill is in sixth place on the all time scoring list, seven points behind Jim Cordial (1942-46). He will have to wait until next year to take his aim on one of the most famous names in Montana basketball history in Wayne Estes, but then brothers Scott and Rob Hurley and Kalafat are well within reach.
While the personal accolades are nice, Hill will tell you he wants to win as a team. And if not for his supporting cast on this latest 10-game stretch, Anaconda may not be in this position despite the gaudy numbers he’s racked up.
Senior wing Kadin Stetzner scored a career-high 20 in the win over Libby in the opening round of the Western B divisional, junior wing Bobby Swainston has popped two 20-point games in the past two weeks of play to raise his average to 10 ppg and junior forward Trent Mikalatos is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-6 with the ability to shoot from the perimeter. Also, 6-foot-3 senior post Kayne Cobban was huge in the divisional championship, leading the team in rebounds and scoring above his average.
Anaconda has finally started shooting well from the perimeter, allowing Hill to break down the defense even deeper in the key. When the ‘Heads can shoot with confidence around the arc while Hill draws the double teams on the interior, Anaconda becomes a dangerous team during tournament time.
FIRST ROUND – WHITEHALL
In what’s become a big rivalry in recent years, the Copperheads and Whitehall will put it on the line when it means the most. The teams have split 1-1 since Anaconda joined Class B two years ago, each winning at home. Whitehall dumped Anaconda 65-47 this year, but that came when the ‘Heads were down two starters and played a collection of underclassmen – some in their first varsity game. Three Trojans hit double-figures that night led by senior Andrew Simon’s 22. Senior point guard Braden Larsen and junior wing Wyatt Alexander each had 14 as well. Anaconda was led by Hill’s 19 and Mikalatos’ 18.
With a win, Anaconda will move on to the semifinals against the winner of Shelby-Lodge Grass Friday at 3:30 p.m. With a loss, Anaconda will have the early morning game Friday at 9 a.m. against the loser of the same game.
If you cannot make the trip to Billings, live radio coverage will be available on KANA 580 AM, kana580.com or via the live streaming app on Google Play and Apple app stores. Search KANA 580 to download the free app.