Mark Albert isn't likely to forget the scene in Hamilton anytime soon.
With eight seniors Albert had mentored on the basketball court at various points throughout the past eight years, the coach stood on the sidelines of Dale Berry Court with a state title on the line and a capacity crowd on hand.
About two hours after his final game with the familiar group of girls began, the Broncs delivered the program its first state title in 31 years.
"That was the best part, honestly, to be able to win the title in front of our community," Albert said Wednesday. "Just having the kind of crowd that you don't get at a lot of girls' basketball games it was pretty special."
Hamilton's girls' basketball title was one of three first-place trophies Missoula-area teams earned during the winter prep season; Hellgate's boys' and girls' swim teams each earned gold and did so in record-breaking fashion at Missoula's Grizzly Pool in mid February.
Hellgate's girls scored a state record 314 points and the boys posted 271 as both programs earned their second consecutive title. They combined to win 12 events on the final day, including all six relays.
"We work hard and we practice what we preach. When you do that well it really feels great,” Hellgate coach Helen Houlihan said.
Though three teams were able to claim the top spot in their respective sports, six others earned trophies and many more had the chance to increase Missoula's trophy count.
Hellgate's boys' basketball team, a favorite to cut down the nets, lost its opening-round game, but rebounded with three straight wins for third. Glacier's girls basketball took a similar route to its third-place finish.
Loyola's boys hoops won the District 6-B and Western B Divisional titles on its way to its first state title game in 47 years. Once in the championship round, the Rams owned a halftime lead before Choteau took control in the second half, relegating the Rams to a runner-up finish.
“This was extra special to do that with this group of eight seniors and get this far," said first-year coach and former Rams' point guard Eddie Stack. "It’s been a while since we’ve been there, so it was simply a magical year except for that second half.”
Both Columbia Falls basketball teams took third at the Class A tournaments; the Wildkats topped Frenchtown in the consolation of the girls' tournament.
Arlee, in search of its first boys basketball title, reached the finals of the Western C tournament before it was handed its first loss. The Warriors then won their opening game of the state tournament before two consecutive losses sent them home empty handed.
In all, 15 area basketball teams reached the state tournament and the number appeared like it was going to be larger until Seeley-Swan's girls, undefeated through the regular season and District 13-C tournament, stumbled at the Western C divisional to end their season at 22-2.
On the wrestling mat, Sentinel declared itself worthy of a spot among the state's elite with a third-place finish at the all-class state wrestling meet at Billings in February.
The Spartans entered the final day of competition 30 points out of first and with seven wrestlers in the semifinals. Only one Spartan made it out of the round unscathed as Sentinel settled for third.
“We were all pretty fired up going into the semis and then we lost our first one and it just kind of snowballed on us,” Sentinel coach Jeremy LaPorte said. “We definitely thought that we could be top three. As the season kind of went on we kind of kept proving to ourselves that we belonged up there."
Columbia Falls, with three second-place finishers and two third-placers, won third in Class A.
The winter season witnessed the final year for a few talents the area isn't likely to see for some time.
During Hellgate's dominating run in the pool, Hanni Leach reached All-American status for the second time in her illustrious career. The USC-bound swimmer set records in the 200-yard freestyle (1 minute, 51.39 second) and the 100 backstroke (53.26) and swam a leg on the Knights' 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays.
Leach earned a record 14 state first-place finishes during her four years with the Knights.
“Hanni has worked hard. Hanni dedicated herself to this sport. I’ve said this before, Hanni knows how to go to a swim meet and she knows how to win,” Houlihan said.
Also at Hellgate, Tres Tinkle ended his three-year run with the Knights as the school's all-time leading scorer. Though Hellgate was upset by Great Falls in the first round of the Class AA tournament, Tinkle helped them win three straight games to grab third.
"What he accomplished in three years is outstanding. He has all the talent in the world, but I don't think I've seen a kid work as hard on their came. Actually, I know I haven't," Hellgate coach Jeff Hays said.
The future Oregon State Beaver led the state in scoring and rebounding and became just the second Montanan to be named Gatorade Player of the Year twice in boys' basketball, earning the award as a junior and senior.
Tinkle's Gatorade award was matched by Hamilton's Taylor Goligoski, who was also honored as a high-scoring sophomore.
"It was a privilege for me to be able to coach a kid of her caliber and I don't see that happening in my career again," Albert said.
Goligoski, who averaged 23 points per game during her senior season, helped the Broncs rebound from a mid-season swoon that resulted in four consecutive losses to reel off 11 straight wins on their way to the state title.
Big Sky will say goodbye to Luke Entzel, who became just the seventh Missoulian to win three state wrestling titles. Entzel also won gold his sophomore and junior seasons. He finished his final season as an Eagle 35-0.
"I wasn’t too worried about staying undefeated,” Entzel told the Billings Gazette after his final match. "Just finishing with a state title was the goal. The fact I did both was icing on the cake."