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Helena area boys basketball preview for 2022-23 season

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Hayden Opitz

Hayden Opitz of Helena Capital attracts two defenders in the crosstown basketball game with Helena High last season in a win for the Bruins. 

High school basketball got underway in the state of Montana last week. However, the teams in the Helena area aren't in action until this week, so for all intents and purposes, at least for local hoops, the season starts Friday.

The Class AA schools  Helena Capital and Helena High  won't open the 2022-23 season until Saturday. They will each be at home, while East Helena will be the Frenchtown Tip-off. Townsend will also be away from home to start at the Manhattan Tournament. Jefferson will open in Red Lodge. 

Of course, when it comes to local teams, the talk starts with the Capital Bruins, who are the defending Class AA state champions. CHS is the reigning champion in football and boys basketball and will be looking to complete the rare feat of winning both titles in the same school year.

With the local high school boys basketball season tipping off Friday (with shot clocks included) here is an overview of all five Helena area basketball teams starting with the defending state champions. 

Capital Bruins

2021-22 Record: 22-2 (Class AA State and Western AA Divisional Champs) 

Head coach: Guy Almquist

While the Bruins are the defending champions and have the belief they can beat any team, long-time head coach Guy Almquist said this team is as humble as any he's coached, especially relative to what they achieved.

"This group, they like to work," he said. "They've won a lot but we talk about being the best we can be. It's easy to look at those long-term goals but it's a day-by-day process and that's what these guys are really good at. We talk all the time about winning the day and these guys really trust in that and they work really hard."

The Bruins have had a long run of success under Almquist, a run that includes two state championships. But if Capital wants to go back-to-back, this Bruins team will need to forge a new identity after losing one of the best players in program history and Montana Gatorade Player of the Year in Brayden Koch.

"There is no replacing him," Almquist said. "We did things with him that we've never been able to do. We also lost two very good guards in Trysten Mooney and Jacob Curry. So you have to adjust to your players. You can't do the same thing every year. Well you can, but I don't think you'll be very successful."

With a team full of athletes and football players, Almquist said he expected Capital to play a physical style of basketball.

"We are going to be a smash-mouth basketball team," he said. "We are going to be physical. Pound the ball inside and create havoc on defense, which I think we'll be able to do with our length."

Replacing three starting guards from a state championship team is never easy. However, the cupboard is far from bare and one of the players coming back is a pretty good building block in Hayden Opitz who was an all-state performer and First-Team All-Area in 2021-22 after averaging 11 points per game and 6.9 rebounds. He also shot 53 percent from the field.

Along with Opitz, Capital also returns a bunch of regular contributors from last season's team such as Nick Michelotti, Luke Dowdy, Hudsen Grovom, Tyler Kovick and others such as Joey Michelotti, Austin Buehler and Henry Gross who will see expanded roles this season.

In all, Capital has nine seniors and all of them are going to play. 

"There are nine seniors and they all know exactly where they fit," Almquist said. "All nine of them are going to make us better and that's why they are here."

The Bruins will open their title defense at home on Saturday against Bozeman in a rematch of the Class AA state basketball championship game. CHS and Bozeman also just played for the AA football championship too with Capital winning both games.

Tip-off is set for 3:30 p.m.

Helena Bengals

Record: 8-13

Head coach: Brandon Day 

Helena High nearly joined Capital at the state tournament but suffered a one-point loss to Butte at divsionals to miss their first state tournament berth since the 2018-19 season.

Also like Capital, Helena High will need to replace its leading scorer which was Kaden Huot, an All-Area selection a season ago. However, the Bengals do return 70 percent of their scoring from last season and boast two of the most exciting young players in the Helena area in sophomores Tevin Wetzel and Jaxan Lieberg.

Wetzel will run the point for Helena this season after he was the Bengals third-leading scorer in 2021-22 at 7.9 ppg. He also shot 29 percent from deep and was third in 3-point makes. Colter Petre (9.1 ppg) is the leading returning scorer and the future Montana State football player also returns after making 22 3-point field goals. Cael Murgel is also back after averaging 7.3 points and 3.8 rebounds, as well as hitting 15 treys (4th on team in 2021-22).

Helena would have even more experience returning if it wasn't for injuries. Big man Dylan Christman was injured during the football season and also averaged 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds. The 6-foot-6 senior is expected back after the holiday break, yet senior wing Carson Anderson is expected to miss the entire season due to a foot injury.

Still, the talent is there and so is the potential to get back to the state tournament.

"Every coach will tell you that the goal is to win a state championship," Helena head coach Brandon Day said. "You want to win games in your conference and do all of that. But we also talk about continual improvement and our team, as young as it is, have a lot of areas where we could improve."

Lieberg averaged 2.9 points per game last season but his role expanded down the stretch and after starting at corner for the HHS football team, he seems poised for a big leap. Dylan Mosness, Joey Seliskar, Manu Melo and Carter Kraft are among some of the others that could see time off the bench for the Bengals this season along with a total of eight sophomore players that will see time with the varsity and JV this season. 

"We have some talented players with a really high ceiling," Day said. "I'm also excited about our seniors and the culture they bring." 

Day is also looking forward to the defensive potential of this team, as well as its ability to get out and run.

"We are fast," he said. "I think we have the potential to get hot and this group is going to be a fun group to coach."

Helena High will host Belgrade Saturday at 3:30 p.m. 

East Helena 

2021-22 Record: 3-18

Head coach: Ty Ridgeway 

Last season was the first varsity basketball campaign for the East Helena Vigilantes. There were ups and downs, as to be expected, but East Helena won its first game of the season and also notched a win over Corvallis in the always difficult Southwest A which features defending state champion Butte Central, as well as traditional powers such as Dillon and Hamilton.

Yet, with another year of experience and nine seniors returning, Ridgeway feels good about his group heading into the 2022-23 season, which starts Friday against Libby.

"Having that year of experience under our belt is important," Ridgeway said. "These guys understand what the varsity level is like. And we've gotten a lot stronger. That's one thing I told the guys after last season, 'We have to get stronger.' They have done that. We played lot this summer and they are just chomping at the bit to get out there and start the season."

Kaeden Sager, a Second-Team All-Area selection and honorable mention in the Southwest A will pace the Vigilante offense after scoring 12.9 points per game last season and connecting on 38 3-pointers  more than two per game.

Colter Charlesworth is another key returner for East Helena after being the second-leading scorer last season (9.2 ppg). Kobe Mergenthaler was the leading rebounder (7.4) and also the third-leading scorer, while Curtis Corzine is another big that averaged 4.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

Ridgeway said one of the most important things this season is playing a complete game and he feels his team will be better prepared in its second varsity season.

"We would play with teams and be competitive," Ridgeway said. "Then we would have one bad quarter, so that's been a big focus and we think we'll improve from last year. The kids are excited and they are hungry."

The goal going into the season for East Helena is making the Western A Divisional tournament. To do that, at least in the regular season, a top-3 finish is required or winning two games potentially in a playoff to earn the fourth spot. 

"Our goal is to get to that divisional tournament," he said. "That's kind of our next step, so we want to be in that top three or at least be in a position to host a playoff game. Talent wise, I think we are just as good as anyone else in our conference. We just have to limit the turnovers, play tough defense and play for four quarters."

The season starts Friday against Libby at 1:30 p.m. East Helena will also play against Ronan on Saturday. The first home game will be Dec. 19 against Stevensville.

Jefferson Panthers

2021-22 record: 13-10

Head Coach: Anthony Connole

The Jefferson Panthers put together a solid run to the Southern B Divisional tournament in 2021-22 but saw their season end there.

And in terms of turnover, the Panthers, like many high school teams, aren't immune. Tyler Harrington, a Class B all-state selection and leading scorer is one, along with two-time All-Area selection Trent McMaster.

However, the Panthers have a solid core returning led by Zach Zody, who was a key contributor last season as a point guard, as well as Dylan Root, who just finished a stellar season on the football field. 6-foot-5 big man Dalton Noble is another name to know for the Panthers, along with 6-foot-3 forward Michael Emter.

The 5B district should also be interesting this season with some new head coaches and some key players having graduated and of course, the Southern B has also been of the most challenging basketball divisions in the state.

Yet, the Panthers have been on the rise and their hope is to keep that momentum going forward int he 2022-23 season.

"I think that any coach that says their goal is not to win the state championship, is not being honest," Connole said. "Or to make the state tournament. I think that's every coaches goal. But you know, we haven't won against Townsend and that's a big goal because our senior guys haven't beaten them in basketball or football. So that's one of their main goals but I would like to see us playing Saturday night at districts, Saturday night at divisionals, and ideally, Saturday night at state."

Jefferson will open its season on Friday against Columbus at the Red Lodge Tournament. 

Townsend Bulldogs

2021-22 Record: 13-7

Head coach: Tyler Patrick 

The Townsend Bulldogs have a new coach heading into the 2022-23 season and it's Tyler Patrick, who is looking forward to the opportunity after playing high school ball at CMR and recently taking a teaching job in the Townsend district.

"Townsend is where I did my student teaching," he said. "And it's a great opportunity to coach a great group of guys. They are competitive and hard working and that makes a coaches job easier."

Trey Hoveland and Gavin Vandenacre were key departures from last season's 13-win team. Yet, the Bulldogs have Ryan Racht back in the fold this season after he scored over nine points a game in 2021-22 and earned Second-Team All-Area, as well as Second-Team District 5B. Jesus Garcia will be another key returning player for the Bulldogs who are seeking to get back to the Southern B Divisional after going out at the 5B tournament a season ago.

"I'm really excited about this season and I'm very fortunate to have a great group of guys," Patrick said. "My dad used to be the superintendent here, so I remember a lot of these 5B rivalries and almost every single game is a rivalry game. That divisional tournament is something special and we are hoping we can make it there." 

Townsend will open the season Friday against Manhattan Christian. 

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