Former Polson Pirates boys basketball coach Joe McKethen can easily quantify just how difficult it is to host a state championship basketball trophy.
It took McKethen 19 years of coaching Polson basketball to work up to the moment in 1993 when his Pirates captured the Class A state basketball championship.
McKethen won his one and only Class A boys state basketball championship 25 years ago as the Pirates head coach.
“We fought a lot of mental things and there were so many dramas,” McKethen recalled. “We were so good and so close (in years prior to ‘93) but we just couldn’t get over that hump. We had gotten third place several times over the years and just being there and getting there was just unbelievably difficult. We were getting to state regularly and three of the four years we were able to jump that hurdle. That really helped us and the year before we had a really good team.”
McKethen recalled that he was told the ‘92 Polson Pirate team had a significant shot to win the title.
“That ‘92 team was really good and they had played the year before really well,” McKethen said. “We got to the semifinals and learned our lesson the hard way. We ended up losing in the state semifinal. Looking back, we made the mistake of talking the team up too much instead of focusing on the game at hand. We talked about what it meant to the community and we just didn’t focus enough on our opponent, which was Whitefish.”
The Polson team defeated Belgrade 59-58 in overtime at the Butte Civic Center to capture the championship title game.
“It was unbelievable we had only a 10-point lead during that game and they started fouling us but we were missing free throws,” McKethen recalled. “We were only 10-of-24 shooting free throws (on that night) and our bad free throw shooting allowed Belgrade back into the game because we were just missing free throws left and right. Maybe the pressure of the game was just starting to get to us because we shot well (from the free throw line) in the semifinals.”
As Polson allowed Belgrade to creep back into the game, they managed to tie the game and force an overtime.
“They managed to tie it and when we got into overtime, I don’t remember what we were able to do in overtime but we managed to shut them down enough (to win it),” McKethen said. “The team averaged about 35 percent from the floor against us and our strength was that we really could shut people down. That enabled us to win the game because they were shooting poorly from the floor. We shouldn’t have won that game.”
During the first and second half of the regular season there was not much to indicate the Pirates would become state champions, according to former Pirates point guard Jarod Tait, Jr.
Tait, who would eventually go onto play NAIA basketball at Montana Tech, said he felt the early-season favorite would be Whitefish.
“We were 10-8 going into the divisional tournament and that put us in fourth place in the conference,” Tait recalled. “We were only the fourth best team in our conference and we had some talent and some players and everyone loved playing the game and we played hard and we had some good teams in that conference that year. Whitefish was awesome that year. They were No. 1 in the state all year long.”
The Pirates were able to defeat them twice: once in divisionals and once at state, which Tait said was the catalyst that spurred them to win the championship, Ronan won the Divisional Tournament that season. “Well I think the comeback victory against Whitefish gave us some confidence and we knew we could beat any team at that point in time,” Tait said. “We had nothing to lose and we really came out and played really well in state and then after we beat Havre we got to play Whitefish at the semifinals and we felt like we matched up well against them and could beat them again and we did.”
After the Pirates won, Tait described the crowd reception as “amazing.”
“After we won we were just trying to run and not knowing how to react. It was amazing and the crowd rushed the court and we were hugging teammates and giving the fans high fives and celebrating the occasion. We just really couldn’t believe it.”
After winning the state championship, McKethen would never coach boys varsity again at Polson and became a real estate agent in Las Vegas and then later became a color commentator for the Pirates radio.
“In the real estate business, we had a lot of ups and downs and it was a tumultuous 11 years,” McKethen said. “It was just absolutely crazy and my real estate business took off. I just didn’t have any more time for coaching.”
The first year McKethen was the head coach of the varsity team. In 1986, he coached current Pirates’ coach Randy Kelley, who was a senior, and he coached him during his freshman and junior varsity season.
“Kelley had a lot of the same qualities that he had as a player and he coached the same aggressive mentality,” McKethen said. “Knowing him as well as I do, he played with that same intensity when he was a player. He is able to get the most of his kids.”
McKethen said he had slowly lost his passion for coaching and that is why he got out of the business.
“I guess I just didn’t have the energy level and if you don’t have that and your 100 percent enthusiasm, then maybe it was a time I let someone else do it,” McKethen said. “I just didn’t have that energy year-round and from the time I started coaching, I wanted to win a state championship. Polson was my first-ever state championship title. I eventually decided to step down and let someone else take over.”
Former Pirates athletic director Dennis Jones, who was the Pirates AD at the time, said he recalled a really interesting team in 1993. Neal Smith, the team’s star player who eventually became a member of the Montana State football team, was one of the key components that was missing for the Pirates prior to divisions.
“They were interesting and they were blue collar,” Jones recalled. “Before the end of the season, there were several players in and out with illnesses. We had one kid hurt his wrist and Neil Smith, who was one of our better athletes, was out for a week because he was ill. He was out leading up to the divisional tournament. Whitefish was in our divisional and coached by this guy name Julio Delgado, who was an icon. He had a team of kamikaze pilots and they attacked you on the defensive end and won the divisional tournament before they go to state.”
Jones knew his team was good but also understand the competitive dynamics of basketball and athletics, in general, is fierce.
Jones acknowledges that tournament time is one of the hardest times to gauge on how a team is going to do.
“You never know come tournament time because it is a different animal and the pressure is different and the crowds are generally big,” Jones said. Jones, who eventually retired from administration in 2001 and bought a regional franchise with narcotics and weapon dogs called Detection K-9’s, said going to back to the school he was involved with for 30 years was strange.
“It was strange coming back to the school that I was at for 30 years after doing law enforcement for 13 years,” Jones recalled.