Every player on Ophir Miner's fifth and sixth grade combined basketball team earned the win. PHOTO COURTESY LUCAS WESTBLADE

A winning philosophy

Ophir Miners fifth and sixth grade boys basketball team takes home the league championship

The Ophir Miners fifth and sixth grade boys basketball team took home the championship title on December 1 – beating out eight other schools in the rural league in a two-day tournament held at Petra Academy in Bozeman.

Coach Lucas Westblade said it was a defensive-heavy game for the win against Monforton Middle School, a team they had recently played – and lost against – twice before the victory. “It was a really exciting game to coach. Eight minutes into the game the score was 2-2,” he said.

It was a neck-to-neck struggle, with the score rarely ever exceeding a two-point margin. What really widened the gap and paved the way to the win were four clutch free throws secured by Auggie Squillace.

“It was back and forth and nobody was really pulling away until Auggie hit those really important free throws at the end,” said Coach Westblade, who described the team reaction as something reminiscent to the final scene of “Hoosiers” - guys were jumping in the air; hugging.

It was the kind of joyful and somewhat surprising victory – a bit of an upset – that would have led to the players being carried off the court if it were a scene in a movie. What makes the win even more notable is that all 16 players competed in the championship game – in fact, they all play every game.

Westblade said he has a number of reasons for doing this: It's better for the players, better for the parents who are coming to watch the guys and better for the program as a whole. He said he wasn't the best player in middle school, but his coaches always let him play – gave him the opportunity to improve – and that allowed for him to be a strong member of the basketball team in high school.

“When kids are in middle school you don't know who is going to be good or not or who is going to drop basketball and focus on skiing or something else,” he said.

Not every school has the same approach.

“It's really disheartening to look across the gym and see a team that we're pretty competitive with and we are playing all 16 of our guys and the other team is only playing 7,” Westblade said, emphasizing that he would hate to be the kid who goes to all the practices and never gets to play.

Westblade said the win was secured with a combination of a little good luck, plenty of hard work and steady improvement throughout the season. He is happy he's been able to follow in the footsteps of the coaches he encountered as a young man.

Pam Flach, whose son Henry plays on the team was overjoyed and a little surprised when she found out.

“I really wish I could have seen that game,” she said.

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