On the Rebound 

With a new home and renewed spirit, can Grizzly basketball stage a comeback?

When the newly remodeled Harry Adams Event Center officially opened its doors last Friday, the University of Montana had good reason to celebrate. For the first time in more than a year, the university had an arena to call its own.

UM pulled out all the stops for the open house. Cheerleaders handed out balloons at the entrance while the public address system pumped Dixieland jazz. The new food courts were open, dispensing free popcorn and soda to boosters and fans. Televisions placed throughout the arena showed Grizzly sports promo videos, and folks at an information booth passed out pamphlets and raffle tickets.

On the floor of the playing area, the Montana men’s basketball team, in their brand-new black travel sweats, were in full meet-and-greet mode. They mixed with the public, answering questions about the arena, laughing and carrying on. They seemed overjoyed at the sight of their new home. They had waited a long time to see it.

It had been 16 months since the university began the $14.7 million renovation project. In the meantime, UM’s basketball squads had been shuffled through a handful of practice locations and four different home courts. The Grizzly coaching staff had temporarily been running its operation out of a luxury box in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. On weekends when the Grizzly football team hosted home games, the offices had to be cleaned out and then reconstructed before Monday.

Suffice it to say that the UM basketball program was finally happy to be home for good.

The new Adams center houses the 7,500-seat Dahlberg Arena, where both Montana basketball teams will resume playing home games this season. The facility also sports new practice gyms and a new 7,000-square-foot athletic training center.

It’s a far cry from the conditions of last season. The new Center—with its vertical, stadium-style layout, maroon theater seats and in-house wet bar for high-level boosters—is vastly different from the high school gym where the Griz played the bulk of their home games just last year.

Gone are the wooden bleachers, the dim lighting and the faulty rims that had to be straightened nearly every time there was a slam dunk. The Grizzlies’ new home has a fresh, contemporary air about it. Even standing empty, awaiting its first test as a true sports venue, the Adams Center just feels like it was built for success. The Montana team and its fans hope the brand new coliseum and a rejuvenated commitment to winning will have them back in the thick of the run for the Big Sky crown. And if the open house was any indication, they’re already on their way to erasing the stinging memories of last season.

A Hard Road

Those painful recollections are of the Grizzlies as a homeless team. While the Adams Center was closed for renovation, Montana had become a tenant of the Sentinel High School gymnasium. Throughout the season, the Griz played so-called home games in a series of cramped arenas from Missoula to Cut Bank before finally settling in at the high school.

The UM Athletics Department had tried in vain to put a positive spin on the nomadic season, posing the team in front of a Beachliner bus for their promotional posters and adding the tagline “Climb Aboard with The Griz.” But the absence of a home floor was anything but a selling point for the team.

Montana, while playing under Sentinel’s roof, had to conform to the high school’s rules and agenda. The Griz planned their every move around the normal goings-on at Sentinel. Most afternoons, scheduling conflicts made it impossible for the team to practice in the Spartan gym. On game day, they gained access to the facility just prior to tip-off. Early on, players struggled to find a rhythm in the unfamiliar surroundings. Without any time during the week to adjust to the scaled-down atmosphere, the gym felt as foreign as any out-of-town venue. The entire situation left Montana in a curious state of limbo.

“It was a thing that was difficult at best,” head coach Don Holst says now. “We tried to deal with it in a very real way, trying not to make excuses for our losses.”

In fact, the team carried itself with courteous elegance throughout the year, never griping or passing the buck. Even at the end of February, when their season came to a nail-biting, gut-wrenching conclusion, the Griz didn’t succumb to the temptation to point fingers.

They even accepted the fact that Sentinel hadn’t been considerate enough to schedule time for Grizzly heartbreak. Moments after Montana saw its late run at the Big Sky Conference championship tournament snuffed out by Eastern Washington, they were ousted from the gym. There was a junior varsity volleyball match to play. Players who had retreated to their decrepit locker room, most of them in tears, some just stunned into silence, were told to quickly pack their bags and clear out. The season was over. UM’s name had already been removed from the scoreboard; the baskets were being removed and volleyball nets were going up. Holst, his future with the team in doubt, was trying to hold a post-game press conference but his words were lost to the motorized growl of a leaf blower that was being used to clear debris from the stands.

In some ways it seemed like a cruel but fitting end to the ’98-’99 campaign. According to Holst, the team had no choice but to use the entire aching saga as a learning experience.

“I don’t ever want to forget it,” he says. “I want a vivid memory of everything. We need to learn from those tough times and we need to learn to be hungry. We were seasoned last year. Now we need to take advantage of that hardship. Hopefully that [year] was the hardest thing we’ll have to go through.”

Montana’s season had been littered with difficulty. Aside from the lack of home-field advantage and an uncertain future for the coaching staff, there had been numerous injuries.

The Grizzlies lost three principal weapons early in the season. Senior starting point guard Eric Bowie and his back-up, Kyle Keyes, both went down with foot injures, while junior college transfer forward Ryan Slider was sidelined with a concussion just three games into the season.

First-year head coach Holst, who took the helm after Blaine Taylor accepted an assistant coaching position at Stanford, was left trying to fill the gaps. Despite the team’s mounting afflictions, the Griz had posted an 8-3 record by Christmas.

But even though they found success early, at times Holst’s own situation seemed uncertain and tenuous.

UM’s administration had not yet removed the “interim” tag from his official title. The Athletics Department’s public comments about the future of the Grizzly coaching situation were noncommittal at best. Athletics Director Wayne Hogan repeatedly stated that no permanent decision would be made regarding the Grizzly coaching position until after the ’98-’99 season. It put both Holst and his team in an increasingly precarious position.

“I think it was a distraction for the whole team,” Slider says. “I felt like he wasn’t coaching the way he wanted to because he was under a lot of pressure.”

Holst’s worries weren’t eased when, in January, the team completely bottomed out. The Grizzlies lost seven games in a row, plunging deep into the Big Sky cellar. Montana finished the month at 9-12 and was faced with the reality that the team would have to play almost-perfect basketball the rest of the way to have any hope of making the post-season.

“We had a string of losses in January that could have just floored a team to the point where they couldn’t get back up,” Holst says. “Our guys could have rolled over and people wouldn’t have said anything about it. But I think we hung in there.”

The Griz did battle back, winning five of their last seven games.

The last-minute push was fueled by a rekindled intensity and a new zone defense that put the hurt on more athletic conference foes. Montana hammered the league-leading Weber State Wildcats by almost 40 points on Feb. 4 and suddenly felt as though they were back in the hunt.

“When we got the big win against Weber State, the kids understood that they could beat anybody in the league if they came in and did everything right,” Holst says. “I think it gave a us a lot of confidence and enthusiasm. The kids actually charged up for the last six games.”

Montana pulled itself back to within one game of the championship tournament. That game, the showdown with the Eastern Washington Eagles in Missoula, was the Griz’s one chance to stave off elimination. It was also, in the minds of many observers, Don Holst’s last opportunity to impress the UM administration. Montana fans, who had routinely been unable to fill the tiny Sentinel gym, packed the house, some displaying neon-yellow signs reading “We Want Don” in support of Coach Holst.

The Grizzlies hung with EWU until late in the second half when the Eagles one senior starter, guard Shannon Taylor, hit a series of deep three-pointers that lifted Eastern to victory 81-75. EWU advanced to the tournament in Ogden, Utah, and Montana was hastily asked to vacate their own home court.

“That hurt,” Slider says. “We went through so many extremes, lows and highs, and we were on a high at the end of the season. We were so close, it was a terrible feeling in our stomachs. But that just made us want to get to the tournament even worse. That’s what this coming year’s all about.”

Back in Business

Of course, the heavens did not fall simply because the Montana Grizzlies had to suffer through one painful season. Don Holst was not replaced. After the groundswell of community support for him near the end of the year, he was hired on as the permanent head coach. Construction of the Adams Center wrapped up, and the team has gotten its feet back on stable ground.

But as can be expected, the preseason hasn’t gone off perfectly for Montana this year. Keyes, who was listed number one on the depth chart at point guard for this season, is again injured and will sit out the entire year. His absence has the Grizzlies scrambling just a little bit to find a suitable replacement.

“I don’t think we know what kind of team we have right now,” Holst says. “With the loss of Kyle Keyes, who is an experienced, senior guard who was showing some flashes of being a really good player, we’re trying to bring along some younger guys. We just don’t know right now who’s going to start at the point.”

Three players—Sophomore Shane Christensen, Freshman Sam Riddle, and Slider —are currently battling for the starting job. All three saw significant action during preseason practices and scrimmages, and each brings a contrasting style to the floor.

Christensen, who was listed as Keyes’ understudy coming into camp, is far and away the team’s fastest player. When the Griz run the Mt. Sentinel M trail, Christensen usually finishes in around seven minutes, Holst says. Even if he’s throwing up the whole way down.

Christensen saw some action last season in relief of starter Cory Reiser and is familiar with the Grizzly offense. After Keyes injury, he seemed like the natural successor.

“In Shane, I see a very vocal leader who’s just a ball of energy,” Riddle says of his counterpart. “He’s a guy we can really rely on to be efficient and bring the ball up the floor and get us right into an offense.”

Riddle himself isn’t new on the local sports scene. He first earned a reputation for himself in Missoula by dominating the competition in the Western AA while playing for Hellgate High School in his own high-profile way. Riddle’s flashy, modern playing style certainly wasn’t the norm in the world of Montana prep sports. As a young star for the Knights, he dazzled audiences with deft dribbling and circus passes. But what some saw as pure ability others called showboating, and Riddle attracted just as many bitter critics as admirers around the state. These days he admits that the rigid structure of high school ball sometimes frustrated him and he says he’s happy he was able to move on to the next level.

“The situation here is way different from high school,” Riddle says. “My high school coach didn’t want me to try to create as much. But now, in college, if I’m not pushing the ball up the floor, trying to make things happen, I get in trouble. I love that.”

His new teammates say they’re just as thrilled to have Riddle in their midst.

“Sam’s young, but goodness, he’s doing well,” Christensen says. “He’s definitely going to have a great career here.”

If there is a dark-horse competitor in the race for the starting job, it’s Ryan Slider. At 6 feet 5 inches and 205 pounds, Slider saw action for Montana last year as a forward, before a collision with teammates in practice prematurely ended his season. After Keyes went down again this year, Slider moved to the guard spot, where he played in high school and junior college. Slider says that his background at the point puts him in prime position to compete for the job. He also adds, though, that two years playing at a different position sometimes has him struggling to readjust.

“It’s really forced me to work on my ball handling,” Slider says. “Shane and Sam are a lot quicker than me, they’re natural point guards. It’s hard for me to be out there with those little water bugs running me in circles.”

Slider notes that, whatever the outcome of Montana’s point guard quandary may be, he’s happy to play anywhere after spending most of last season on the injured reserve.

“Every time I play point guard I feel a lot more comfortable,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter, I’ll play wherever. When I got hurt last year it just killed me, so I’m happy just to be out there.”

Holst says Montana’s two exhibition games, Nov. 8 against the Delta Jammers and Nov. 14 against Team Concepts, will be the true proving ground in the race for the starting point guard position. Regardless of who wins that job, though, the Griz will also have to look for leadership from their two returning senior starters, guard Mike Warhank and forward Matt Williams.

Warhank, who started his career at Montana as a non-scholarship walk-on out of Great Falls High, has become one of the most proficient pure shooters in the Big Sky. Last season, he was the conference’s third best three-point artist, shooting 44 percent from long range. Warhank was also one of Holst’s most vocal supporters during last year’s coaching controversy, alluding to the fact that he might not return for his senior season if Holst wasn’t retained.

Williams, meanwhile, is the Griz’s main weapon in the paint. He began his college playing days at Pepperdine University and came to Montana last year by way of a California junior college. His first season at Montana, he became a smashing success as he led the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game. Williams, who also finished second in the Big Sky in rebounding with 7.9 per game, was the only Grizzly to win All-Conference honors. He went into the off-season vowing to work on his mid-range jumper, which if further developed, could make Williams doubly threatening to Montana’s rivals.

“Matt and Mike are our leaders, no doubt about it,” Holst says. “They don’t bring the ball up the floor, but they’re in good positions to do certain things to really help us.”

But Holst is clear when he says the Grizzlies can’t just rely on two players to win for them.

“This group has got to win games by committee,” Holst says. “It can’t be one guy or two guys. We need a lot of guys to step up and score for us.”

Although the team has had limited access to the new arena prior to its opening, the Grizzlies say they already feel better knowing that the renovated Adams Center will be their den.

“It means everything to the team.” Slider says. “Just when we got in there the first time, we walked down and we were all smiling. It just feels like home; it feels like our place. It’s tight. I told coach I’ll sleep here instead of sleeping in my room.”

But Holst is quick to point out that the new arena’s friendly environment doesn’t guarantee anything. Home field advantage can only be effective if the home team itself is ready to play.

“You don’t want to get too comfortable,” he says. “It’s our home court, but nobody is going to come in and just roll over for us. I don’t want our guys to think it’s going to be as easy as a lay-up for us just because we now have a home floor.”

Indeed, neither of the pre-season Big Sky polls pick the Grizzlies to finish in the top half of the conference this year. Players and coaches alike know that improving on last season’s mark will be a dog fight for Montana. Nonetheless, everyone is anxious to sculpt the Adams Center’s first tour of duty into a positive, winning season. The Grizzlies say that this year, they don’t want to be sitting home idle while the conference championship is decided.

“Now that we’re playing here it feels so good to have our own arena,” Slider says. “So many things were hard on us last year, but that just got us motivated for this year. We want to go to the Big Sky tournament for sure. I’ve never been there and that’s our Number One goal. I know we can play with those guys.”

The Grizzlies make their first appearance at the new Adams Center Nov. 8 at 7:05 p.m. against the Delta Jammers. The regular season begins in Missoula Nov. 21, when UM squares off with Gonzaga at 3:05 p.m.

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