By Fritz Neighbor
Daily Inter Lake | May 2, 2020 4:26 PM

The Glacier Wolfpack boys’ basketball team of 2015-16 weren’t anything to write home about – hurt by a key injury the squad struggled to three league wins under head coach Mark Harkins, who had run Glacier’s program since the school’s doors opened in 2007.

Maybe that’s why the Pack was a bit unheralded in 2016-17, even though 6-foot-6 center Jaxen Hashley was back from that key injury, and ready for his senior season.

Besides Hashley, though, only Tadan Gilman had seen a lot varsity action, averaging 10.7 points as a junior. Add in some garbage time points and Glacier had 13 points per game returning for 2016-17.

A few months later they were State AA champions. The numbers tell one story: Best in the state in scoring defense, best rebounding totals, best marks in Class AA from beyond the 3-point arc. But that’s not the whole story, so we talked to as many wolves as we could.

TADAN GILMAN: Rough year (in 2015-16). Didn’t win a whole lot. I will say this, though – we had talent in terms of wing players and point guard. We just needed an interior force. I felt we really could have made a run at state if we’d have Jaxen inside.

COACH MARK HARKINS: We were definitely a defense-first team. We ran a 2-3 zone 99 percent of the season. We were definitely a pack it in sort of ideology.

PATRICK O’CONNELL: Coach Harkins and Coach (Doug) Hashley sat us down and told us from the get go, ‘I don’t think you guys realize right now, how good you guys are and how good you can be.” That kind of set in for us. We obviously had to work for it – if you looked at us we weren’t the best overall basketball team. But combined together, there was a piece here and a piece there. And obviously Jaxen was the centerpiece.

JAXEN HASHLEY: We just had a lot of pieces and grew up pretty close. I think that was a big thing about it, too. I’m sure as you’ve a lot of times, it was all about closeness and being a family. We knew where people were going to be before they even started moving.

JACK DESMUL: Once we started winning games it wasn’t a surprise – like when we lost, that was a surprise.

Gilman and Caden Harkins, Mark’s point guard son, were at the top of the 2-3 zone. Hashley played the middle with O’Connell and Torin Bowden on the baseline, though sharp-shooting Brec Rademacher eventually moved into the starting lineup. Key reserves were the 6-7 Desmul, 6-2 Collin Kazmier and 6-3 Kody Jarvis.

Harkins, Kazmier, Rademacher and Jarvis were juniors; the rest were seniors. Hashley averaged a State AA-best 11.9 rebounds to go with 16.7 ppg.

A handful of the players had helped Glacier advance to the AA football championship in 2016, where the Pack lost to Billings Senior, 33-21. Gilman and O’Connell are on opposites of the Cat-Griz football rivalry; Bowden has been playing college baseball; Hashley had a standout basketball season for the Providence Argos; Desmul is entering his senior year at Luther College in Iowa.

GILMAN: I was tall enough (6-4) to be on the bottom and fast enough to be on top of the zone. Honestly, it was play 2-3 as much as we possibly can. We felt like if we mastered it, no team could solve it.

MARK HARKINS: They were a gifted group. We were deep and had some good athletes that knew the game. We knew we could be pretty good. Doug Hashley assisted me that year and we talked a lot – we never said they could win it, but we often said we thought they could play Saturday night (at state).

JAXEN HASHLEY: Bowden was a really athletic kid. Jack Desmul, he came in and hit a huge shot for us in the Skyview game (more on that game later). Nice little baby hook in the middle of the key.

CADEN HARKINS: Brec Rademacher – one of the best shooters I ever played with.

BREC RADEMACHER: I just wanted to help out – I wasn’t sure how much playing time I was going to get. We had a good amount of good players on that team.

DESMUL: I don’t think there was a single second where we (himself and Hashley) were on the same court at the same time. I was his backup. He was a great player, though, so I wasn’t really that mad.

The season began with wins over Great Falls CMR (68-41), Class A Polson (58-53) and Great Falls High (66-58). Then came a road trip to Butte and Bozeman. Butte handed the Bulldogs a 56-37 loss.

MARK HARKINS: I’m not sure why we were so bad that night? Butte played well and we didn’t. But it was just a thumping. They killed us.

O’CONNELL: We just did not play well. And they played a really good game against us – stopped our inside game and were penetrating our zone.

HASHLEY: I can honestly say I have never won a game at the Butte Civic Center.

O’CONNELL: I remember a lot about it. Coach Harkins had a clean-shaven rule, and I got on the bus and I’d forgotten to shave. I had some stubble on my face. So I had to get a razor and shave in the locker room. I left my mustache on and came out and there was Harkins and he said, “You know you’re going to have to take that off, too.” So I turned right back around and went to the locker room.

GILMAN: I had to do the exact same thing. I didn’t have as full of a beard as Patrick, but I had to get rid of some stubble.

CADEN HARKINS: At the gas station they had to buy razors. (Coach) went up to Pat and said, “You want to play today? All right, you’d better shave your face.” I honestly think it was a big bluff.

O’CONNELL: After the game Coach Harkins got into us because he knew the potential we had to be really good. He specifically got into me and Caden – I got subbed out and kind of lolly gagged off the floor. I can’t remember what he got into Caden for.

CADEN HARKINS: I didn’t care because I’m his son – but what was really cool was that after that he sent me and Patrick a text to come to his room. I thought, “Are we going to get yelled at some more?” But he and Coach Hashley were there and they basically apologized.

MARK HARKINS: We did light them up pretty good. … I’m pretty emotional, especially right after games sometimes. Doug Hashley and I talked and we thought maybe we were a little over the top there.

CADEN HARKINS: That sparked the season off to a good start – we had respect for the coaches and they respected us and wanted to make sure we weren’t too hurt by the barks.

The next night – Dec. 22 – the Wolfpack went to Bozeman and won 66-62. Jaxen Hashley scored 23 points – including a three-point play to break a 62-62 tie with 32 seconds left – and grabbed 15 rebounds.

MARK HARKINS: That was one of those games where you think, “Man, we might be all right.” They had a great team.

CADEN HARKINS: That was crazy, actually. I think that was the first time any of us had been in Bozeman High School. I won’t say we were star-struck but we were impressed. Lance McCutcheon, Drew Huse – they had some pretty big names. It was pretty intimidating.

RADEMACHER: One thing I always liked – there were a few teams that before the game they’d be on the bench, headphones on, being serious. Not our whole team but a few of us, we’d screw around and walk around the school, try to find their auditorium. We tried not to take it too serious until, “OK, it’s time to go to the locker room.”

MARK HARKINS: They got tossed out a couple times by different principals, but that was their pregame ritual. Never had a team do that before, or since: “Let’s walk around and check things out.”

Bozeman was the start of a 13-game winning streak. Hashley had some ridiculous games, including back-to-back 21-point, 17-rebound performances against Post Falls, Idaho and Frenchtown, and 17-point, 15-board, 5-assist line in a 55-44 win over Capital on Feb. 10. In between Caden Harkins hit a last-second, 12-footer to beat Missoula Hellgate 53-52; and southpaw Kody Jarvis poured in 20 points in Glacier’s first win over Capital, 44-35 on Jan. 14.

MARK HARKINS: Kody was a great player – he had games where he was just find his zone. Had a great first step – and he had his moments where’d carry the offense.

CADEN HARKINS: We were all super pumped because it was more guys trying to step up. Kody is a great defender and had a great offensive skill set. After that game he had a little more pep in his step.

GILMAN: Caden Harkins literally hit a game-winner at the buzzer, and it was at Hellgate, which made it that much more impressive. That we were able to go there and get a win was awesome. It took very second – every single possession, we had to focus.

CADEN HARKINS: I want to say we were up by four (at Hellgate), and two possessions in a row I got my pocket picked. My dad was pretty livid. … I can’t remember if there was a steal or a five -second call but we got the ball back. Jaxen hit a crazy three from the corner – it hit back iron and caroms, no lie, six feet in the air.

HASHLEY: He did a great job running the point all year.

CADEN HARKINS: We got the ball back again and we ran this play that we’ve run a thousand times: I was supposed to reverse it and get it to Hashley. They guarded it really hard and I didn’t see anyone going back door. I saw an opening and just put up a little floater and it went in. And it was awesome.

GILMAN: When we won that game I realized that, “Wow, we have a good team. We really have a chance this year.”

The close of the regular season brought some confidence-testers: A 67-56 home loss to Hellgate in which Hashley played on a sore knee; then a 57-53 loss at cross-town rival Flathead. The Braves had trailed Glacier 46-16 at one point of a 57-41 loss on Feb. 2 but turned it around behind 25 points from Tyler Johnson.

HASHLEY: That Flathead game, with cross-town you never know what’s going to happen. Credit to them, they played pretty well.

O’CONNELL: That one probably hurt the most of the three losses. Butte, we shook it off the next day. Hellgate, they’re always a good team in conference play. Flathead was the hardest but at the same time it helped motivate us. It helped us to work some things out – they exposed some stuff that hadn’t been exposed before, especially in our defense.

MARK HARKINS: I don’t know that there are good losses, but that one game taught us a lot.

CADEN HARKINS: We got a little taste of losing and didn’t like it. You could tell everybody was back and focused at practice. Everybody bought in: We’re not going to lose again. And we didn’t.

In between the losses came a 48-45 road win over Missoula Sentinel in which Hashley sat out; Glacier had a closing 10-2 run sparked by Gilman, who had 16 points. His 3-pointer broke a 45-45 tie with 14 seconds left; a game-tying three by Sentinel’s Sam Beighle wasn’t true.

MARK HARKINS: That was a huge game – with Jaxen out, I think that gave the kids a lot of confidence. That was a good Sentinel team and the kids found a way to win without him.

GILMAN: It’s not like (Hashley) needed to play; it was just smart. We were about to have across-town.

CADEN HARKINS: It showed that even without Hashley, we were still a good team. That helped in the state championship game, when Jaxen fouled out. We’d been there before.

The win over Sentinel sewed up the Western AA’s automatic berth into state for Glacier; they headed to Great Falls with a 17-3 record. The tournament opener was a 56-49 win over Billings West in which Hashley had 15 points and 17 rebounds and West shot 3-for-21 from the arc. Gilman scored 14 points and Harkins added 12. Also notable? O’Connell, who began the season 6-for-23 at the line, hit 4 of 5 free throws.

Then came a semifinal battle with two-time defending champion Billings Skyview, led by star RayQuan Evans. With 2:20 left Evans hit a short floater to put the Falcons up 40-39 – his only field goal. Glacier scored the last nine points, six of them from Harkins, and won 48-40. Harkins tied Hashley with 14 points; the big man had 15 rebounds.

MARK HARKINS: They were loaded. I think we kind of snuck up on them a little bit. We maybe caught RayQuan on a bad night and were able to eke that one out.

CADEN HARKINS: Honestly the only specific thing I remember is the pregame introductions: I was freaking out. I had never seen that good of a basketball player that close before. He’s like 6-6 (Evans averaged 11.5 minutes and 3.2 points a game for 26-5 Florida State this past season). I’m looking up there and my hand’s shaking – I was nervous.

O’CONNELL: I don’t want to say that was more important, but … It was one of those championship-type game atmospheres.

CADEN HARKINS: I don’t think Skyview had seen a defense like our 2-3 zone. We were flying around that night. I think that was our best game that season.

That left a rematch with Bozeman for the title. The Hawks had future Montana Grizzly Mack Anderson inside, along with 6-6 Jack Carr. Drew Huse led a balanced attack at 12.5 points a game. It was Glacier’s first title appearance after losing in the semifinals three straight years, from 2012-14.

MARK HARKINS: I remember Patrick said, “Coach, I got second in baseball, second in football, I do not want second in basketball.”

O’CONNELL: My junior year for state Legion baseball was when we lost to the Billings Scarlets. Then after that summer we go into the fall for football, and we lost to Billings Senior. Once we got to the championship for basketball, there was no way I was going to lose that one.

HASHLEY: I think if you ask me, Kadan Gilman and Pat O’Connell we’d say the same thing: There was no way on earth we were going to lose in the state championship game twice in one year. We’d lost in football and that broke all our hearts.

The Pack broke away from a 24-24 halftime tie to lead 35-28 after three quarters. It was 39-36, Glacier, when Hashley was called for a charge – his fifth foul. Then he drew a technical. There were three minutes left and the two technical free throws drew Bozeman to 39-38.

HASHLEY: I untucked my jersey, and that was an automatic tech. You could ask anybody around me. I didn’t say anything.

GILMAN: I had no idea that just untucking it was a technical.

MARK HARKINS: That was a great teaching point for me as a coach – it’s a rule we had never talked about and it kind of bit us, there.

O’CONNELL: I remember myself and Tadan Gilman telling the team, “We’re going to be fine. We have to stick to the game plan and we would pull this out.” That’s what happened.

CADEN HARKINS: They (Gilman and O’Connell) know how to give people confidence. They had everybody believing. It was sweet.

RADEMACHER: One of the coolest things I remember is when Jaxen went out, I remember Tadan specifically saying, “We’re not going to lose this game.” And Patrick was right there with him.

DESMUL: I was kind of anticipating him going out – I was definitely ready. I was kind of (ticked) off – I really wanted to get in the game. I wasn’t nervous or anything – I was happy I was going in to prove myself. And when I was in I was trying not to mess up – focusing on my guy, not letting him score, boxing out and getting rebounds.

O’CONNELL: He had some big baskets that he made for us. He had the best little baby hook that he’d use. He had a big basket against Skyview.

GILMAN: That was another thing – Jack Desmul came in and said, “Don’t worry boys, I’ve got this.” And made two major plays. That was awesome.

DESMUL: Thirty-nine seconds left, their big guy got it and I blocked him. They fouled me and I was in the bonus.

Desmul missed those shots, and Bozeman drew to 44-42 with 26 seconds left. The Hawks then fouled O’Connell, who was about to close a 12-for-15 hot streak at the line. He hit two free throws with six seconds left for the game’s final points: 46-42, Glacier.

HASHLEY: The two biggest free throws all year and he stepped up and knocked them down. It was clutch; he has that clutch gene.

CADEN HARKINS: He definitely hit the biggest shots – probably in school history. We were up two against Bozeman. Everybody on the team that he was going to knock them down. He’s that kind of kid.

MARK HARKINS: There are a lot of moments – I think back and know that the group was pretty awesome. What I loved about that team is they were intense and got on each other in practice, but not thing out of hand. They really held each other to a high standard.

HASHLEY: Besides that, everybody played so well. It was so much fun running from the bench when the game was over. We’ve got a great picture (it’s on the Glacier High School website) – Coach Harkins jumping in the air, a couple of us running off the bench.

O’CONNELL: Yeah that is a good picture. It’s always a good memory. It will be something we talk about down the road a little bit, when we’re all back in Kalispell and playing a pickup game. We have a Snapchat group under 3-11-17 – whenever that date comes up we send flashbacks into it. So that’s pretty cool.

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