MISSOULA — Jason Maki never had been involved in a basketball game as the coach of the No. 1 ranked team in the state until Tuesday.
The Missoula Sentinel coach had been coaching in Oregon for the previous 25 years and had to give some of his buddies in the business over there a call after he saw this week’s poll following his team’s 2-0 start last week.
“We had a good laugh, but I said it doesn’t mean much after two games,” Maki said following his team’s 59-34 home win over Helena High to improve to 3-0. “It’s neat, it’s fun to talk about, but we want to be there at the end of the season. We don’t really care how we get there.”
Maki inherited a loaded team from former coach Jay Jagelski in his first season back at his alma mater. The Spartans brought back all five of their starters, highlighted by Montana State signee Alex Germer and senior Tony Frohlich-Fair.
The expectations were through the roof, even with a new coach, as they were a state-title favorite, if not the favorite, coming into the season. They were tested with tough battles as they opened with 77-64 win over Flathead and a 61-52 comeback win over Glacier, showing Maki there's still a long way to go in their progression and development.
“I tell them if people have high expectations, that means they think you’re good,” Maki said. “So, we got to go out and prove it. That’s the fun part. It’s what pulls us together.
“The beautiful thing is we set our goals and they know the things we have to do to reach those goals. That’s pretty mature for kids. They’ve said you need to hold us accountable for these things. They’ve done a great job. Practice is fun and I’m having a blast.”
Maki spent the fall season watching several of his players win the school’s first state football championship in 48 years. That team went 10-0 as the wire-to-wire No. 1-ranked team in the state, so Maki picked football coach Dane Oliver’s brain about how to handle high expectations.
Maki and the basketball team ended up going with the motto of “Tough and Together” as their rallying cry. The slogan is on the back of their warmup jerseys along with a fist.
“We talk about being tough and together. Those are our two goals,” Maki said. “We want to play tough mentally and physically, and we want to be together, really be a team and be excited for each other. It’s the kind of mentality of what I wanted them to be, and they’ve bought in.”
Germer and Frohlich-Fair have carried the load as Sentinel’s top two scorers in every game this season. Germer scored 10 of his game-high 17 points against Helena in the first half as the Spartans raced out to a 37-18 halftime lead. Frohlich-Fair had 11 of his 14 before intermission.
Hayden Kolb added seven points, while Montana football signee Soren Syvrud and Kaden Sheridan scored five points apiece. The Spartans outscored the Bengals 34-21 over the middle two quarters, turning a 16-8 lead after one quarter into a 50-29 advantage heading to the fourth.
“We wanted to see energy, and I thought we fed off our defense tonight, and that allowed us to get out in transition, which is what these guys really like to do,” Maki said. “Now it’s looking for sustained effort because we get sloppy at times.
“I tell them as soon as we get tired, our brains kind of click off and we make some mistakes that we don’t make when we’re engaged and ready. So, we just need to be able to sustain effort, and I think we’re getting better at that every day.”
Helena dropped to 0-3 with the 25-point loss being its worst of the season and the 34 points being its lowest output. The Bengals lost their opener against Hellgate by six points, 47-41, and lost to Butte by 23 points, 62-39.
Helena’s Austin Zeiler scored six of his team-high 10 points in the second half. Evan Barber had seven of his nine points in the first half.
“The biggest thing is we just wanted to come in and compete,” Helena coach Brandon Day said. “We really haven’t played very well the last couple games. We were hoping to come in and play a little better, but Sentinel’s a good team and beat us.
“We did some good things in our man to man and our trapping zone press. We had a couple guys come off the bench and bring us a little bit of energy. But it wasn’t too much good.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.