EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed West is a former Gazette sports writer and is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the history of high school sports in Montana.
When the championship games of the boys and girls State AA tournament finish Saturday night, it will not only mark the passing of another season, but also of one of the greatest eras in the history of Montana high school basketball.
On March 15, 1969, a crowd of estimated at 10,700 — regarded as the biggest in Montana high school history — jammed into the Montana State University Fieldhouse for the last game of the Big 32 state tournament.
It was a memorable end to a memorable time when the under-sized Laurel Locomotives outlasted the Flathead Braves of Kalispell 57-54 in overtime. Playing without a starter over 6-foot-2, the Locomotives, coached by legendary Don Peterson, outdueled the Braves, who towered over them with the likes of 6-foot-10 Brent Wilson (he was listed at 6-11 the following season) and 6-7 Don Grovom.
The victory capped a magical season for Laurel which finished 26-0 and claimed the school’s first state championship.
Along the way the Locomotives beat Billings Senior, Great Falls CMR
and Bozeman. They also played familiar foes of today including Billings Central, Glendive, Hardin, Miles City and Sidney.
With players like eventual all- tournament selections, Tom Perrigo, Alan Campbell and Roger Seelye, Laurel didn’t have too many scares. An efficient offense and sticky defense kept the Locomotives in control most of the time as they won 18 times by 10 or more points.
They could be a frustrating team to play. If Laurel got even the smallest lead, its defense and free throw shooting were too much to overcome.
Senior’s Broncs came the closest to knocking the Locomotives off, falling 57-56 in a December meeting in Billings. Lewistown put up a battle, being tied after three quarters before losing 56-53.
In the regular season finale, Laurel met rival Billings Central. The game was moved from Central to West to accommodate a larger crowd. A packed-house watched the Locomotives subdue the Rams 71-62.
In the Division 1 tournament, the Locomotives had to face a good CMR outfit on its home court in the championship game. Laurel managed to pull out a 52-47 victory to put its record at 23-0.
Then it was on to state where a talented field, which included defending champion Wolf Point, awaited.
In a preview story for the tournament, Gazette sports editor Norm Clarke, listed the enrollments of the schools. CMR was the largest at 2,363 followed by Flathead 1,761, Missoula Hellgate 1,735, Anaconda 864, Butte Central 413 (boys only), Sidney 602, Laurel 559 and Wolf Point 458.
That was the thing about the Big 32. It came down to how good your team was rather than the size of the school.
The league began in 1963-64 and was originally 30 schools with nine from AA, 12 from A (including Laurel) and nine from B. Hellgate eventually joined in 1964-65 and CMR in 1965-66 to complete four divisions of eight teams each.
Powerful Missoula County began the new setup by steamrolling its way to the championship. The Spartans, in the midst of a 56-game winning streak, ran up a 27-0 record and won by an average of 33.5 points a game.
The smaller schools then began to make their mark. Columbia Falls, fresh out of the B ranks, made it to the championship game in 1965. The Wildcats fell in the final seconds 62-61 to Great Falls.
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In the next couple of years, two other former B schools would surpass the Wildcats’ accomplishment.
In 1966, Libby toppled Columbia Falls in the divisional tournament, and went on to claim the state title. The Loggers, which had future Montana governor Marc Racicot in the lineup, edged West 62-61 in the semifinals and clipped Hellgate 72-70 for the title.
Two years later Wolf Point made its run. Led by 6-4 Willie Weeks and 6-9 John Weeks, the Wolves outlasted Great Falls (and 49 points by 6-7 Bison center Ray Howard) 82-79 in double overtime before polishing off Flathead 71-55 in the championship game.
Entering the 1969 tourney, Wolf Point was 21-2 and ready for a much anticipated matchup with Laurel in the semifinals. The dream game never happened, thanks to scrappy Butte Central, which slowed down the high-scoring Wolves in the first round and won 46-40.
Laurel hadn’t had any trouble with its opener, winning 71-47 over Hellgate. Undaunted by Butte Central’s upset, Laurel managed to get past the Maroons 63-56 and then toppled Flathead to take its place in history.
But after that year, a school Laurel’s size would not have a chance to compete with the largest programs in a state tournament.
In 1969-70, the largest 16 schools were designated Class AA and the rest, Laurel among them, became Class A. The present-day AA has 14 schools and A has 22.
Certainly, the larger schools probably didn’t like losing to the smaller ones, but it wasn’t like they didn’t have any highlights during that period. Senior and West played one of the great championship games in 1967 with the Broncs winning 69-67 in overtime.
West qualified for the Big 32 tournament five of the six years it was in existence. Missoula County/Sentinel went four times and Senior made it three times.
Overall, 21 of the 32 schools appeared in at least one tournament.
The only larger school not to make it was Helena, although the Bengals were seconds away in 1966. Lewistown scored in the final seconds to beat Helena for the Division 1 championship and the Bengals then lost to Laurel in a challenge game.
But, on the other end, there were probably a number of smaller schools who didn’t like their chances of getting to many state tournaments had the Big 32 remained in place.
There are still games between AA-A teams, but it’s not quite the same as battling in a divisional or state tournament atmosphere. Laurel’s current schedules include the Billings AA schools and the Locomotives did play the Great Falls teams in the early 1970s. But there’s been no chance for them to play Bozeman or Flathead or the Helena schools since the Big 32 ended.
A big reason, of course, is that economics have changed for activities budgets over the years, particularly with the addition of girls sports (You wonder what kind of memories a girls Big 32 could have produced). Regionalized scheduling has helped reduce travel. Overnight trips, except for tournaments, are mostly gone.
It’s quite possible the interest in the Big 32 would have waned if the AA schools had started to dominate, which seems likely, at least judging from the interclass results over the past 20 years or so.
Then again, you wonder what some of the Livingston and Glendive teams of the 80s, the Dillon and Columbia Falls teams of the last 15 years and the Laurel teams of the last few seasons might have done in such a setup.
Tonight marks 45 years to the day of the last Big 32 game. Maybe the Locomotives and a by-gone era deserve a tip of the cap.