BILLINGS – Sam Gray kind of had it coming, really.
As big brothers do, Gray would good-naturedly needle his younger sister Cindy on the occasions when her Billings Central girls basketball team took a loss last winter.
Unfortunately for Sam, he’d overlook the fact that Cindy also played on the volleyball team, which won the first of their back-to-back Class A championships last fall. Cindy was always quick to remind him.
“All last year, I was hearing about how I wasn’t a state champion,” Sam Gray said. “My mom (Linda) actually went to school here and she won some state championships, so it’d be like how the boys (in the family) haven’t won a state championship.
“Yeah, it was getting so annoying.”
Well, Sam Gray isn’t on equal footing yet with his sister and mother, but he finally did win a championship. An all-state offensive tackle, Gray helped the Rams beat Hamilton last month for the Class A football title.
Now, the 6-foot-7 senior is looking to add to his tally as Billings Central gets set to open its basketball season this weekend. The Rams have been runners-up each of the last three seasons, and it won’t be easy to win that extra game this year, either.
Defending champion Hardin doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and Eastern A rivals Lewistown and Laurel should continue to make things tough for the Rams even in conference play.
Gray is one of three returning starters for the Rams (Joe Byorth and Chrishon Dixon are the others). Gray didn’t see much playing time as a sophomore, but coach Jim Stergar expected Gray to slot right into the lineup as a junior, and that he did.
He averaged 12 points and 5.5 rebounds a game and earned a second-team All-Eastern A nod to boot.
Besides his height – Gray, who just turned 18 a couple weeks ago, grew 1½ inches since last basketball season – he has all the accoutrements needed to reach the next level again.
“He can catch ... he can finish down low … he has a mid-range game … he can shoot threes … and he can put the ball on the floor,” Stergar said, making a list of all the things Gray does well.
“When you can do all those things – and you’re tall – you’re going to be a college player. What’s kept him off the major radars is that he doesn’t go dunk every time he gets the ball. You can be a great player and not have to get off the ground.”
Stergar has what he calls the 10,000 Shot Club. During the end of each season, until the beginning of the next, he expects his players to make 10,000 shots.
Each of the previous three summers, Stergar said, Gray has been among the program leaders in the club. (Remember, these are shots made during the offseason, not attempted). Gray topped 20,000 makes last year, and this year he’s over 17,000.
“You don’t have to motivate Sam,” Stergar said. “There’s certain kids you don’t have to tell them what to do, they just sort of do it on their own. Chrishon is one of them. Sam is one of them. Seth (Sasich) is one. Those guys have put in more time than I’ve seen in a long, long time from players.”
Even if he is self-motivated, Gray admits there is extra motivation for this, his last season. All he has to do is look at the championship game scores for the past three seasons:
• Dillon 66, Billings Central 61 (2016)
• Dillon 59, Billings Central 45 (2017)
• Hardin 47, Billings Central 43 (2018)
“It’s definitely disappointing, but it’s like, it’s one of those things that motivate you for the next season, keep getting shots up, keep going to open gyms, keep going to camps, knowing in the back of your head that you don’t want to have that feeling again,” Gray said. “We’ve experienced that the last three years and hopefully we can get over that hump this year.”
And maybe, if he can get the second championship for the boys in the Gray family, sister Cindy and mother Linda will cut him some slack.