HELENA — Sitting packed in boxes in Carson Cunningham’s eccentric office this fall were cardboard boxes.
Many of them.
The contents inside were a surprise. The occasion for the surprise had a date, Feb. 24, but Cunningham cracked into them early.
Bobbleheads characterizing his seniors – Pat Colberg, Ryan Imhoff, Oliver Carr and Lorel Johnson – laid mostly packed up. The four players, shrunk down to ceramic figurines, posed and smiling.
Cunningham displayed one temporarily on his desk before finding a hiding place for the collection to hibernate this winter.
Now, nearly five months later, those bobbleheads will help the Saints celebrate their seniors on Saturday. Senior Night will honor those four and redshirt junior Kyle Nickol, who Cunningham planned another surprise for.
Cunningham felt the gesture appropriate for a class that redefined Carroll College men’s basketball. This class came to Carroll a season after the Saints won just two games the year prior to Cunningham’s arrival and only nine games in his first season.
Each senior, all with a variety of roles, played a crucial part into rebuilding Carroll back into its contending status.
“We wanted to do something special for the fellas — what an unbelievable class,” Cunningham said. “They're the builders.”
Now, with nearly four complete seasons of basketball under their belts, the four-year players have nearly 100 wins, a conference title, a conference tournament title and two of the school’s four NAIA quarterfinals appearances in the program’s history. Cunningham noticed the competitive spirit of the group when they arrived on campus.
“They're resilient and they learn. And they're dynamic — I mean we have a chemist, banker, communicator QB (future TV hoops analyst?), chiropractor, and dentist,” Cunningham said. “They're funny. They're thoughtful. A great group.”
Colberg felt the group’s collectivity is its defining feature.
“We’ve been through so many games and have such a good streak going these past four years,” Colberg said. “Tons of winning and always sticking together and being brothers.”
Colberg and Johnson riffed off one another – like the Saints so often do on the court – in a classroom in the PE Center on Friday, recounting what Senior Night and their cohorts meant to them.
Johnson, when asked for one quality to define the Saints, felt it was a mentality shift.
“I think our group more than other classes before and maybe even after us, stayed together,” Johnson said. “When you have four years of camaraderie, you can’t really coach that or teach that.”
Both agreed Senior Night brought excitement and a rush of nostalgia after “being through it four times, and the fourth time is us,” Johnson said. The players remembered senior night ceremonies before in high school, but at Carroll College the night seemed more permanent.
“Most likely we’re going to be done playing after this year,” Colberg said, “so definitely just savor it a little more.”
All five of the honorees on Saturday have played a hand in the Saints’ success.
Johnson has been a major minutes contributor since his freshman year, quarterbacking the team and playing relentless defense. Carr, the Bozeman High standout, won freshman of the year honors and then gracefully adjusted his role to better the team.
Imhoff has been one of the best players in the Frontier Conference over the past few seasons and could be compensated for his basketball skill in the future. Colberg’s brought energy and consistency to Carroll, giving the Saints quality minutes when he’s called upon. And Nickol, aside from his All-American track status, has been a pesky defender who keeps opponents honest with his shooting.
Senior Night will encapsulate four years of hoops for the Saints. It’s also a reminder of the different culture Carroll College breeds. Every program in the Frontier Conference celebrates its seniors, but at Carroll College those seniors have been in the program for four years. A transfer player at Cattoll is an anomaly.
And Carroll has to look no farther than its Saturday-night opponent, No. 10 Montana Western, to see differences. Western senior guard Dom Robinson is a community college transfer, a MVP-candidate hooper who found a team willing to give him a shot in Dillon. His counterpart in the post, Brandon Jones, is in his first year in Dillon and making waves.
Other transfers dot the rosters across the Frontier Conference. Each program has its own philosophy on how best to win basketball games. More than one philosophy can be successful. And yes, other schools foster four-year players, too, but not quite like Carroll.
Players notice those differences.
“After every season we’re like ‘oh that team lost everybody, but we’re going to be right here because we have all of our guys,’” Colberg said.
Johnson added: “It’s something we can see. We can see how unique we are because we see the roster changes. Our roster, we pretty much add new recruits. We don’t get transfers.”
As if an emotionally-charged night needed any more intrigue, Saturday also serves as the rubber match between Carroll and Western.
Winner takes all.
Western already earned a share of the conference title, but the winner of Saturday’s game gets the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Carroll earns a share of the title with a win. Western wins the conference outright.
“I’m hyped for the atmosphere,” Colberg said. “It should be crazy.”