As of Thursday, Dec. 10, Browning basketball coach Dan Connelly said he was “getting ready for tryouts,” as the Browning School Board voted to approve winter sports. The approval came with stringent COVID-19 requirements, some insisted upon by Coach Connelly, and the season begins weeks behind the usual start with most athletes not having practiced in the gym since last spring.

“It was a contentious decision with the pandemic,” he said, “but the Board approved it because of the mental anguish the kids are feeling. I fought hard for the mask mandate at practices and games. We may be the only ones wearing masks, but safety is my number-one thing. Keeping people healthy and safe is my number-one goal. There’s still no guarantee, but we can darn well try our best.”

This season Coach Connelly is encouraged by the presence of a core group of players from last year. Some of those players include Blayne DeRoche, Cody Carlson and Joe Bullshoe. Riley Cromwell is coming back, as well as Luke Juneau who is a senior this year.

“I’ll be relying on my seniors, and I’ve got some tough younger kids coming up,” Connelly said. He also noted a talented group of freshmen on their way, a group that won middle school championships nearly every year.

“Having said all that, realistically they’ve not played since last March, and we’re probably the only town in Montana that’s like that,” Connelly said. “We had nothing during the summer, and that’s the first time I’ve seen that since I was a coach. Summer sessions usually help to season the players before the regular season starts. I know there’s going to be growing pains, but we’re shooting for being better by tournament time.”

Even with the school board’s go-ahead, the future remains uncertain.

“I told the kids to take it one day at a time because if the numbers go up, it can all be shut down,” said the coach. “So there shouldn’t be any wasted days; we should treat it like every day’s a gift.”

With freshman, JV and varsity squads being put into action, Coach Connelly has had to impose unique practice arrangements, dividing them into two practice “cohorts.” Freshmen, being the most numerous, are one cohort while the JVs and varsity practice as another cohort. This will allow players from the JV squad to move into the varsity as needed without having to endure a 10-day quarantine period first. In addition, JV players will get much needed experience playing against the varsity squad.

Many precautions will be observed, the coach said, including regular temperature checks, ball washing and wearing masks.

“I told the parents that I need them on our side,” he said. “For success in anything it will take everybody to follow the rules.”

The schedule for basketball is likewise changed, but harkens back to an earlier time when boys were away when the girls played at home, and vice-versa. In addition, the hoop season begins in 2021 on Jan. 2 when the boys will host Shelby as their opening game. Only the varsity will play since the Coyotes are shorthanded this year. Libby follows on a week later on Jan. 9 for another home game at the Browning Tipi Dome.

“I didn’t know if we’d even have a season,” Connelly said. “We tested all the athletes yesterday just for tryouts, but we won’t have the results for three to five days, and I’m down one assistant coach because of his underlying conditions.

“I’m torn over this because my wife is an infection control officer at IHS so I know how hard they are working and how tired they are. I fought for the masks, and I’ve got to try my best and make this work.”

At present, no spectators will be allowed at home games, but a suggestion that seniors be allowed two tickets per player was left undecided until after the first of the new year when the Board will examine the numbers to make a decision at that time.

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