BILLINGS — When fans take a seat at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Saturday, they will witness a family reunion of sorts when the Hardin Bulldogs and Billings Central Rams play each other.
Two brothers, each a starter, one for each team.
Jae Hugs is a senior at Central. Younger brother Trae, a sophomore, suits up for the Bulldogs.
Oh, and the boys’ father, Justin Hugs, is the head junior varsity coach at Hardin.
Suffice it to say, many members of the Hugs family will be watching the two basketball-rich programs collide.
“Then to add some more fuel to the fire, to have these two on different teams adds a little more glory to the game if you win it,” Hardin coach Andrew Round Face said. “We’re trying to get it for Trae so that way he has a little bragging rights over his brother. Can’t be underneath him all the time.”
Growing up, Jae dreamed of attending Billings Central.
“Even my friends (in Hardin) know that I’ve always wanted to come to Central,” Jae said. “The opportunity presented itself and it’s just something I couldn’t pass on.”
Jae and Trae’s mother, Adree Herrera, attended Central as well. After attending Hardin as a freshman and sophomore, Jae saw an opening for Central, so he went through the application process and was accepted. He left his mother's home in Crow Agency and moved in with his godmother, Kelcy Heringer, in Billings.
“People were kind of sad to see me go, but I think they knew that I wanted to go,” Jae said. “I think they were happy that I was happy in coming here.
“It’s a college prep school, and I thought that was something that I really liked. I thought, ‘This is what’s going to get me ready for college’ … I’m super, super thankful for everyone that’s helped me get here and everyone that’s supporting me.”
Round Face admitted he was a little surprised Jae left.
“I thought he was joking around at first,” he said. “Justin told me he was thinking about going to Central and I kind of just laughed it off because I didn’t think it was really going to happen because he’s been talking about it since he was really young.”
Round Face said he found out at a summer tournament, when Jae was playing basketball with Central’s team, having already completed his transfer requirements.
“It kind of blindsided me but at the same time I was kind of happy for him because it was something he’d been talking about,” Round Face said. “I gave him a hard time about it but he seems to enjoy it. I’ve talked to him a couple of times, went and watched a couple of football games, and supported him through whatever he’s been doing.”
Hardin seniors David Evans and Codi Small are two of Jae’s best friends. Jae keeps in contact with everyone throughout the sports seasons, checking in via text when he’s not home. Jae said he aims to make it back home on weekends, though that is difficult during the football and basketball seasons due to road trips.
When Jae first stepped onto the court as a Ram against Hardin in February 2017, to say it was an eye-opener is putting it mildly.
“It was very different. I tried encouraging them if something went wrong,” Jae said. “Even after the games I’d give them a hug, say, ‘Good luck man that was a heck of a game you guys played today. Good luck with the rest of your games.’ Just trying to be positive.”
“I was excited to play against him,” Trae said of his brother. “I was happy for him because there are more opportunities for him at Central and more schools can look at him.”
Being a new student as a junior, Jae admits the transition to Central had its difficult moments. So he tried to involve himself as much as possible and meet new people, a process he said worked well. Being away from friends and his younger brother was tough at times, too.
But he found his niche, and sports helped. After sitting out the first semester of his junior year due to transfer rules, Jae came off the bench for Central’s varsity basketball team last year. This past fall, he played for Central’s football team, which reached the Class A semifinals.
Herrera said she was excited when Jae said he wanted to attend Central. She knew he is talented academically, so she agreed with the switch.
“The thing with Jae is when he has his mind set on it, he’ll work for it and push and prove himself until he reaches that goal,” she said.
His new teammates and coaches have asked what it’s like playing against his younger brother. Jae said they have also been supportive.
“It was tough to see him go. I got to coach him his sophomore year when he played JV in Hardin,” Justin said. “That was good because at least I got to coach him for one year.”
Central coach Jim Stergar said Jae’s impact for the Rams has been positive.
“It’s just been a blessing to our team and our school to have Jae here,” Stergar said. “He’s such a great kid, a good leader and does well and is a role model for younger kids. He’s become a captain for our team this year. It’s nice to have guys like that who people respect and he’s earned that respect and works his tail off.”
When asked if he remembered the two of them guarding each other last year, a moment that earned a loud cheer from the crowd, Stergar said, “Oh I do. It was a good moment for both of them. I’m totally surprised by what Jae Hugs has done for us as a team and community. It’s like he’s been here his whole life.”
Stergar, who is in his 20th season as a head basketball coach, said he’s never seen a situation where two brothers played against each other in a varsity game.
“I’ve had brothers on the same team and start with each other, but never play against each other,” Stergar said.
As for the move, Jae said it has gone better than he expected.
“It’s been a blessing being here,” Jae said. “I have great friends and know great people. The teachers are great. I think it’s been better (at Central) than I expected.”
A big reason he moved is academics, and Jae’s pie-in-the-sky college is Gonzaga. He doesn’t have a set area of study, though medicine and history stand out.
But that’s the far-ahead goal. He can’t look too far past Saturday.
“(There’s) a lot of excitement,” Jae said. “I grew up with these kids and from being with each at sleepovers and always hanging out. I’m really excited to see how we both stack up against each other and how we’ll be on the court.”
Trae’s road to the varsity was much quicker than Jae’s.
Listed at 6 feet, standing next to him he seems even taller. He’s an athletic guard in Hardin’s run-and-gun offense, and Trae can shoot well from 3-point range.
He said it was weird going against his older brother but he is approaching this game as any other.
“It was weird because I used to play with him at junior high tournaments and all. I’m used to playing with him," Trae said. "Playing against him was weird but kind of fun.”
Jae said he was not surprised when Trae began as a starter this year.
“If anything, I was proud,” he said.
Trae is the quieter of the two, saying that he doesn’t even jokingly trash talk his brother.
“We just play,” he said.
“They’re two totally different people,” Herrera said. “They have two different attitudes on the court. Jae is a phenomenal leader and Trae is just so talented at basketball.”
Round Face said Trae keeps things loose in practice. His quick one-liners ease any tension when mistakes are made.
“I’m used to them growing up and playing on each other’s travel team and playing in a lot of tournaments growing up,” Justin said. “They all grew up playing travel team together. It’s kind of hard. I wish he was a Bulldog still, but he wanted to go to Central so we support him.”
Rivals on the court, brothers off
Last year, the brothers matched up in Central and Hardin’s JV games as well as the two of the three varsity meetings. Both say no real trash talk goes on during the games but, rather, words of encouragement.
“I remember we were going into overtime and he’s getting mad at himself. I’m standing right next to him and I say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re fine, keep shooting,’” Jae said, then paused before smiling. “Sure enough he goes and hits the game-winner on us.”
Said Justin, laughing: “I don’t think Jae was too happy about that. But when they played us here in Hardin, they got us pretty bad.”
Those moments prove toughest for their parents. While they are happy for one son’s success, they are saddened for the other. Both Justin and Herrera said it took time to learn how to deal with it.
“You’re going to want to cheer for one team fully and then you’re going to want to cheer for your other kid, but they’re both playing at the same time and it’s just really nerve-wracking,' Herrera said with a laugh. "And I’m the type of parent that will scream and yell around, but that’s probably one of the games that I stay the calmest. When one scores, do I cheer for them or do I sit here? I cheer for both teams.”
She specifically remembered the JV game where Trae hit the game-winner. She cheered briefly for Jae when he blocked Trae, and vice versa when Trae knocked down the winning shot. But she said she has to catch herself because she roots for both.
Trae still lives with Herrera just outside of Crow Agency. The traveling, she says, is the toughest part, but she makes it to as many home games for both as she can. When it comes to road games, she attends the one closest to home.
“But it’s fun. It keeps me really busy,” Herrera said.
Herrera has also heard the two talk a little brotherly smack.
“Jae will say, ‘Oh I made some 3's last night,’ and Trae will say, ‘Oh I make those all the time.’ And then Trae will say, ‘I got a block today,’ and Jae will say, ‘Oh, I do that all the time.’ Just sitting there listening to them battle is crazy and funny.
“I got really emotional just to see them both out there on separate teams. For them, what I wanted them to do in high school was to play high school basketball together, not against each other. But life took us in different directions and now we’re playing against each other. Central and Hardin has always been a rival game, and now I have a Bulldog and a Ram.”
In the end, there’s always one reminder.
“You play each other on the court as competitors but once you’re done you’re still brothers regardless,” Herrera said.
Said Jae: “He’s my little brother. I love him to death and I just want to be there for him.”
As for seeing his dad on the opposing bench?
“When I played for him, I thought it was pretty cool,” Jae said. “But seeing him on the other bench (was different). Last year when we played Hardin he’d always tell me what to do and just kind of joked around with me.”
Perhaps the biggest moment for the family was last year’s state tournament in Butte. With Jae and Trae playing and Justin coaching, all had a hand at one point or another in the games. Hardin lost in the opening game to Dillon, and Central lost in the championship to the Beavers.
“That was the best feeling of my life seeing Jae and Trae make it to state,” Justin said. “I wanted Jae to win it last year because they made it and we lost out. It brought a lot of joy to my family.”
Saturday at the Metra
The entire Hugs family has been looking forward to seeing the brothers start opposite one another.
“It’s been on my mind. I’m not sure about Trae but it’s been on mine,” Jae said. “I’m not sure how things will go but I’m hoping and sure it will be fun.”
Trae is a guard and Jae is a post, so the two might not actually match up.
“I never in my mind thought this would ever happen,” Justin said.
Herrera said the week has been dragging by for the game she has had circled on her calendar. She said she sits on the Central side but behind the Hardin bench.
“I’ve been waiting for Saturday since Trae was running cross country and Jae was playing football,” she said.
“I like seeing Jae. I don’t know if I’ll like seeing him on Saturday,” Round Face joked as Justin and Trae both laughed. “If he goes off, Trae’s going to be in trouble.”
Jae admits that going through the starting lineups and shaking the hand of Round Face and seeing his dad and brother does have an emotional impact.
Trae, of course, will get an ovation when his name is called in the starting lineup. But Jae’s will probably be equally as loud.
And if one has to switch on a screen and ends up guarding the other, it will be like a family reunion all over again.