GREAT FALLS -- It’s a different animal, the State championship game.
There’s excitement in the nonconference schedule, followed by an energy at the start of the conference slate. That energy morphs into urgency in the second half of the year, and then turns into anxiousness when the postseason arrives.
Come tournament time, it all swirls together in a melting pot of emotions as the pressure of survive and advance grows.
What, then, does it feel to play in the final game of the high school season?
A man who has been there a few times, Steve Keller said it is really a bit of a mixed bag.
“Sometimes the pressure actually gets off a bit when you get in the championship game,” said Keller, who coached the Helena High girls to three State AA titles. “But I’ve been very fortunate in my career, to be in 12 of them and win six. It’s an amazing feeling, that all your hard work has gotten you to where you get a chance to be State champions. Obviously it’s not the easiest thing to get there. And when you’re there, what you feel like is ‘We might not get back here, so we’d better take care of business and win it.”
Keller, now the men’s basketball coach at Montana Western -- which will play next week in the NAIA tournament -- began his coaching career in Opheim. He coached the boys and girls there for seven years, and then spent a total of 19 years at Helena, also coaching both the boys and girls teams.
Keller coached the Helena High girls from 1985-92 and again from 1997-2002. He coached the boys team from 1992-2004. He led the HHS girls to three State AA titles, and his boys teams took second, third or fourth seven times.
He also won three championships at Opheim, and built a high school coaching record of 610-180.
Keller was on the sideline the last time the Helena High girls played in the championship game, on Dec. 2, 2000.
The game was played in front of a packed Helena High gym, and the top-ranked Bengals fell to Kalispell Flathead 32-29. It was the Class AA title for the Bravettes.
“We won three -- 1990, 1991 and 1997,” Keller said. “The disappointing thing about that loss was it was in our own gym, where we hardly ever lost. They played a zone and we couldn’t make shots. That was really disappointing.
“I think sometimes we thought, ‘It’s on our floor, so it’s gonna be easy.’ But it’s never easy.”
Playing point guard on the first two of those Keller championships at HHS was Cyndie Lockett, who also later coached the Helena girls for three seasons, 2005 to 2008.
Lockett was three times selected to the State AA All-Tournament team, and her senior season was tabbed the tournament MVP. She recorded a triple-double in the opening game of that 1991 tourney, and finished the weekend averaging 15.3 points, 7.7 assists and six rebounds.
That season, the tournament was also held in Great Falls. That season, too, Helena beat rival Bozeman in the semifinals.
“I think, for me and a lot of my teammates, what you remember is just the excitement, because you finally made it,” said Lockett, who made the trip from Helena to be in the stands of Four Seasons Arena on Saturday. “You talk about it all season, and you’re working toward that State championship game.
“It is a little overwhelming at first, and you’ve got the nervousness, but you’re excited to get on the floor.”
Keller was in the stands for Helena’s Day 1 win Thursday over Billings Senior which was, like that 2000 title game, a low-scoring, tough-shooting contest for the Bengals. Making the coaching rounds, he took in the State A boys tournament in Butte on Friday.
“It was kind of exciting to see them play,” he said Saturday afternoon, on his way to the State B tournament in Billings. “I have some friends with daughters on the team, and I was just really impressed with their size and athleticism, and they were really fast. I was really impressed with them, and I’m really happy that Helena High is back in the State championship game.”
Lockett has kept in touch with her former teammates, who in recent days have been circulating pictures from their senior season online. She said that they all, whether living in Montana, California or Nevada, have been following the Bengals’ run.
She added that the game is one the current Bengals, too, will never forget.
“I think what I can remember most from our senior year was looking at the crowd. And you’re just totally amazed at the sea of red, maroon and silver,” she said. “This has brought back all the flashbacks to great memories. Just the memories that flood back and the excitement, it just all seems to come back and you just get so excited for them.”