MISSOULA — The Hamilton Broncs are poised to make history in Bozeman this weekend, but they don't want to jinx it.
It's been 43 years since the Hamilton boys played in the state basketball title game and 71 years since the Broncs last took the title trophy back to the Bitterroot Valley.
"It would be really special for our community," Hamilton coach Travis Blome told 406mtsports.com. "We've had great community support. Every team's goal at the beginning of the year is to win the state title and we're one of eight teams left, so we've got a chance. It'll be a very challenging weekend, but that's what the state tournament is for, to see who can come out on top."
The 1947 team and the 2018 team are quite different. A Missoulian article recapping the Broncs' lone Class B title described Hamilton as the "rangy Broncs," who towered over their opponent in Hardin. That squad, according to the article, was led by three players who'd just started their basketball careers.
This time around, it's Hamilton's seniors — Carter Kearns, Bridger Bauder and Tyler Chouinard — who are leading the way. And Kearns, the reigning Western A Divisional MVP, is the tallest Bronc on the roster at 6-foot-4.
"They've had great leadership," Blome said. "I came in with these guys four years ago as freshmen. We've all grown up together. To see them really mature and become great leaders within our team is why we've been successful this year on and off the court. It's been really fun and exciting to see them really come through and step up."
Since losing to Polson at the State A tournament last season, the Broncs haven't missed a beat.
Hamilton has downed 23 straight opponents on its quest for the school's first Class A basketball championship on the boys' side. (The Hamilton girls won a Class A title over Billings Central in 1984 and over Butte Central in 2015.)
The Broncs are the only undefeated team in the field. Hardin, the tourney's other top seed, is 19-1. That one loss came in double overtime against Billings Central — Hamilton's first round foe.
Anything goes in the high school version of March Madness and the Broncs are fully aware of that.
"It's exciting that we're coming in playing good basketball," Blome said. We're all going to be 0-0 going into the tournament and in our opening round, Billings Central, is a great team. It's going to be a real challenge but we're excited for it."
When Polson ousted Hamilton in the Class A state tourney last year, Blome's message to his team was a positive one.
Instead of pouring salt in the wounds of a freshly-eliminated team, he encouraged them for having one of the best seasons in recent memory.
"I think the idea is no matter what the result is, we want to do it the right way," Blome said of his post-game speech last year. "We want to be positive with each other. We want to play hard, play as a team and have fun. Whether you win or lose, that happens and you can't really control that, but you can control your attitude and effort.
"I think they've really bought into that."
That's been Blome's message all along.
The fourth-year skipper inherited a team that finished dead last in the Southwest A with a 4-16 overall record and a 1-9 league record in 2014. The Broncs did marginally better in Blome's first season, going 7-15 and winning three games in conference play.
Then they exploded, finishing the 2016 season with a 12-12 record and made it to state for the first time since at least 2004. Last season was even better at 16-8 with a second-straight state tourney apperance.
"We've came a long way," Bauder said of the team under Blome's leadership. " ... He's great at bringing us up and he's great at making it fun. He's definitely getting the best out of us."
"Going to state was really special for us last year, but this year's definitely a little different because we've been to state two years in a row," Kearns said. "Now we're going for the win."
Blome said the one thing that sets this year's team apart from the rest is their collective attitude and effort. That stems from last year's post-Polson pep talk and rolled through the season.
"It's really a credit to our kids and wanting to work hard in the season and the offseason," Blome said. "These guys have put a lot of time in. Growing up and in the gym throughout the summer, just shooting. You can really see that our guys really care for each other and care for the game and want to succeed. They want to work hard. I think that's a testament to them and our coaching staff."
It helps that the this team has played together since they first learned to dribble.
"The top eight players on our team I've known since I was so small," Kearns said. "It means a lot to play with these guys. This weekend's going to be special. And I'm really, really excited for it."
But it's not going to be a cake walk. Hamilton's first opponent is Billings Central — last year's state runner up.
"I know they're coming in as the four seed but really throughout the whole year they were one of the top two teams (in the east) and we know that it's going to be a huge challenge and we have to come ready to play," Blome said. "We're hoping that's an exciting game and we'll see what happens."
Kearns, along with the rest of his team, is motivated for it, because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. He wants to go out with a bang.
"Us three seniors on the team, we've been playing together and dreaming of winning a state championship since we were little," Kearns said of the possibility of taking home the trophy. "It would definitely mean a lot to us.
"It would mean everything."