HELENA — When the Helena High girls basketball team successfully repeated as State AA championship this past March, coach Eric Peterson joined an elite group of six other coaches from the past 27 years to achieve back-to-back titles.
Since 1990, those girls teams winning at least two successive state hoops crowns were Helena (1990-91), Bozeman (twice, 1995-96 and 1998-99), Flathead (2000-01), Billings West (2003-04), Missoula Big Sky (2008-09) and Sentinel’s three-peat (2012-14).
Based in part on Helena's State Class AA repeat titles with a 53-49 upset over conference champion Sentinel in the finals, Peterson was selected the Independent Record’s High School Girls Sprots Coach of the Year for the 2017-18 school year.
“Honestly, we have so many great girls coaches within Helena and our surrounding communities that I am humbled by this award,” Peterson said. “This is a program award because three other amazing coaches – Jolene Lloyd, Heather Madsen, and Kaci Matthies – sacrifice a lot of time and effort to help raise our program to a championship level.
“And lastly, our players make coaching easy because of their work ethic and great attitudes in meeting high expectations set by our coaching staff.”
Former crosstown Capital coach Bill Pilgeram stated that Peterson “has done a great job of getting his players to play together” and instilling confidence in them.
“Eric’s teams won back-to-back titles because they were playing their best basketball of the year at the State tourney as a result,” said Pilgeram, who will be heading up Corban University’s program next year.
The Bengals finished second to the Spartans in the Western AA’s regular season standings as the two teams split their series.
In the finals of the conference tournament in The Jungle, Sentinel edged the Bengals 59-52 in overtime, while claiming the West’s title trophy.
But at the Class AA tourney in Billings, Helena proceeded to run the table, beating CM Russell 59-38 and Glacier in the semifinals 63-52.
Helena then capped off the year in the state title game by defeating the Spartans 53-49 for the repeat, and a sparkling 21-3 overall record.
“‘Coach P does a tremendous job communicating with his players in regards to their roles on the team and how valuable each and every role is,” former Helena assistant Ashley (Milbrandt) Fish said. “He has high expectations for each and every girl, both academically and socially in the community, as well as in athletics.”
Vanessa Walsh, a junior forward/guard, said Peterson is “big on instilling confidence” in his players to hit their shot or get the next defensive stop.
“Coach P understands all the questions we ask, and is able to explain the game from a player’s perspective, so it’s relateable,” she said.
State tourney co-MVP and two-time all-state junior post Jamie Pickens, described how Peterson’s “ability to adjust to anything” and “handling wild teenage girls” is what helps him be successful.
“And the ‘Big Guy’s’ flexibility and calm attitude are what makes him so good in big games,” Pickens said. “What I’ve learned most from him (is) how to carry myself on and off the court.
“Throughout the years, ‘P’ has taught me to not settle for anything and with hard work and dedication anything can happen.”