HAMILTON — For the Arlee Warriors’ marquee player Phillip Malatare, capturing a Western Class Divisional Title with a 77-33 victory over the Plains Horsemen doesn’t get old.
Malatare and the rest of the team have unspoken systematic checks and balances within their team and coaching staff that is pretty well understood that a member of the Warriors team or staff doesn’t get complacent because as Arlee’s coach Zanen Pitts has preached all season “giants can be beaten.”
Malatare, just one of many Warriors that have aspirations to play beyond high school in college ball said he felt winning Divisionals gets exciting “every time.”
“No, it doesn’t get old because it’s actually pretty exciting every time,” Malatare said about defeating Plains 77-33 in the championship. Plains was one of the top-ranked teams in Class C. Arlee first defeated Manhattan Christian 69-60 in the semifinal game Friday night at Hamilton High School.
“It was a big semifinal game and we thought we played them in the Divisional championship instead of the semifinals,” Malatare said. “Everyone knows that was the Divisional championship and I wish we would have gotten to play them in the Divisional championship.”
The Manhattan Christian semifinal game was so dramatic, it nearly nullified a great tournament run by the Horsemen, who earned the right to play the top-seeded Warriors in the Divisional Championship game.
“Playing Manhattan Christian was definitely exciting because they are a great team and one of the best teams in the state,” Malatare said. “If you sleep on Manhattan Christian, they are going to come out and beat you that night. That is just how it is. You have to come to play (ball) every night.”
This might not be the last time the two teams get to meet as they will prepare to play each other at opposites ends of the bracket when the top-seeded Arlee Warriors get to play the No. 2 seeded team out of the east the Belt Huskies in the first round of the MHSA Class C state basketball tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Butte Civic Center.
While Arlee prepares to play the Huskies, as far as Pitts and the rest of his team are concerned, this game will be the “tie-breaker” between the two teams that have split contests in 2015 and 2016 State tournaments.
“We played them freshman year in the semifinals in the State tournament and they beat us sophomore year by two points,” Malatare said. “It’s always been great playing against those guys. They have a great coaching staff and they understand the game really well. They have pretty good athletes in Belt and I am looking forward to playing against them because they bring a pretty good crowd and it will be a pretty fun game.”
Malatare and his Warrior teammates aren’t going to take any opponent lightly, in spite of outscoring the Horsemen by 44 points.
“We need to know as much about the Huskies as we can,” Malatare said. “Someone has seen or heard about them and we know a few things about them. We worked today in practice on preparing for every team. We are preparing for every team in the state like they are the top-ranked team and that we are about to enter a dogfight. We are preparing to play every team like they are the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.”
Prior to the start of a very dramatic semifinal match with Manhattan Christian, the Warriors experienced turbulence off the court with several players suffering from the flu prior to the game.
The pregame locker room scene was as dramatic as playing the sharp-shooting Eagles, whose ability to shoot the three-ball allowed them to climb back into the game.
“Phillip threw up six times, Will threw up three times and Lane Schall was throwing up all over the place,” Pitts said.
The Warriors overcame their pregame illness as they wouldn’t be denied in their biggest game of the year since the first tip-off of the season at the SKC Native American Classic.
“I was just a little bit sick the whole week going into the Divisional tournament,” Will Mesteth said. “I literally didn’t think about it and I took a bunch of medicine and a little cough syrup. It was a crazy feeling but I felt a little bit better. I tried not think about it during the game and I just thought about basketball and what it took to win the game.”
Mesteth wasn’t focused on how he was feeling, especially when the Eagles crept within three points.
“Yeah, I was confident but I did get a little scared when they were within three points,” Mesteth said. “When we knew they had to foul, we were confident that we had pretty good free throw shooters. Sure enough, practice makes perfect
The fluidity and accuracy in which the Warriors shoot during pressure and big game situations is no accident. It has to do with the repetition in which the Warriors work on the fundamentals of the game.
“We usually go about an hour and start shooting free throws, jumpers, three-pointers and just shooting hundreds and hundreds of shots a day in that hour time limit,” Mesteth said.
Ready For the moment
Last year, Mesteth participated in his first-ever MHSA Class C state experience and he vividly recalls it.
Not only does Mesteth remember the experience but he can’t wait to relive the feeling of walking through the tunnel and out into the Montana State University Bobcats’ stadium for the second time in the college-bound senior’s basketball career.
“I’ve only been to State once and that was last year when I played a full season on the varsity squad,” Mesteth said. “Just walking into the Bobcats’ Stadium, it was a different atmosphere that many kids don’t get to experience. There were just thousands of people from our community and our reservation and it is a cool thing to experience.”
Mesteth said in his second go-round, he expects the experience of trying to help the Warriors win back-to-back championships is going to be more hype because of the expectations that accompany the success of the 2016-2017 season.
“This year, it’s going to be so much hype, more fans and it will be loud, I guarantee it,” Mesteth said.
Playing with heart great equalizer
Warriors’ player Isaac Fisher stands at 6-foot-8 inches and growing, and when he isn’t on the court, the Warriors still have a small lineup compared to other teams they will compete against this season.
“Isaac helps when he is on the floor,” Pitts said. “When he is not, everyone on our team is under the six-foot mark.”
Last year, the Warriors captured the Class C Championship basketball title with a hard-fought 71-67 victory over Manhattan Christian.
Their tallest player stood at 5-foot-11 on that team against three of the Eagles’ All-State bigs standing at 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5. Llast year Arlee made the height difference irrelevant with some playing that no statistical metric can measure: heart.
“You just can’t measure the heart because the heart is way bigger than the size and the size of the heart of this team is just unreal,” Pitts said. “The heart is unreal and you can’t dictate what the heart can accomplish. In every contest or battle or military war, the one who has the biggest heart has always won. That is the great equalizer out there.”
Pitts, an experienced basketball player and now an experienced coach, knows anything can happen in March and anticipates his team will have adversity as they will face the best team the state of Montana has to offer to start Thursday.
“We won’t change our game plan under any circumstances and we want our opponents to always change their style to try to fit our game,” Pitts said. “We have too many weapons and there are 100 different ways to use them but we are definitely beatable if you catch us on a wrong day, as is the case for most teams.”
Bring on the Huskies
The postseason match up between Arlee and Belt is currently even at one victory apiece, over the last three years.
Pitts, his coaching staff, and his team still want to break that tie.
“It’s perfect,” Pitts said. “That is exactly what we want because both of us are 1-1 against each other and someone has to break that tie. I don’t want the series to be even.”
The Belt Huskies (18-9) have losses to Florence-Carton, Fairfield, three losses to Stanford-Geyser-Denton, Grass Range-Winnett, and a 59-52 loss to Heart-Butte.
“They have a very good team,” Pitts said. “It’s all about their heart for the game and they have all the ingredients in place to make this a very good game.”