Bozeman Gallatin’s Eli Hunter Determined to Build Winning Culture, Keeps Upping His Game | Basketball Boys

BRADEN SHAW Bozeman Daily Column

BOZEMAN — With 10 seconds left, Bozeman Gallatin senior Rylan Schlepp secured the rebound.

The Gallatin boys’ basketball team had just missed a chance to take a late lead on Billings West on the road, but now had one last shot. Which means the bullet was going to one place: Eli Hunter’s hands.

“I got the rebound, we threw it and he hit a 3, which was awesome,” Schlepp said. “They left it wide open in the corner, and (when that happens) it usually fits.”

Hunter’s buzzer beater gave Gallatin a 55-54 win over West on Feb. 3, a key win for the Raptors as they push for a spot in the upcoming Class AA state tournament. Hunter led the team with 19 points, which Gallatin has gotten used to this season.

The junior has long been Gallatin’s clutch, leading the Raptors to score 11 times this season. That includes his run through the first six games where he averaged 20.3 points per game.

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“I really found the midrange hit this year,” Hunter said. “I think it’s been a great addition to my game, especially since I’ve been experiencing shooting dips. I also went to the free throw line a lot this year, which helped me.

“And then I have other team-mates who put the ball quite a bit, so it helps the defense to be able to let go of me a bit, which also helps a lot.”

Hunter wants to take his game to the next level. The motivation to do so comes from having been around the game all his life; his parents, Amy and Tyson, both played basketball at Carroll College, and Eli had had a basketball in his hand since he was 2 or 3 years old.

It was still surreal, however, when he got the call to play on the Gallatin varsity team in the school’s freshman year. Hunter’s only previous experience with high school basketball was playing for Bozeman’s freshman team.

But once Hunter, Schlepp and the rest of the team made their way across town, expectations and responsibilities grew.

Bozeman Gallatin junior Eli Hunter passes during a match against Bozeman Jan. 14 at Gallatin High.

Rachel Leathe, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

“Obviously that was a big change,” Hunter said. “But it was fun to build a new culture and (gain) new teammates and a new coach. It was fun to have a new family here.

Building this new culture has not been easy. Hunter said he was ready to take the plunge, but the college-level speed and physics still provided a substantial learning curve. He remembers being roughed up in a game against Great Falls at the start of the season – an 87-45 loss for Gallatin.

Hunter knew he needed to get stronger, so he hit the weight room. He also needed to make his jump shot faster, his ball handling tighter and his defense more consistent.

What helped all of that – and allowed him to test himself against top-flight competition – was when Shawn Dirden contacted him last year. Dirden is the founder and head coach of the Montana Rebels, a local AAU team that Hunter now plays for.

Hunter joined the team last summer, and he said it was an eye-opening experience. The Rebels play all over the United States — in places like Dallas, Las Vegas and Atlanta — and help give players exposure for college recruiting.

“It makes you want to work harder than ever when you come back,” Hunter said. “We’re pretty sheltered in Montana when it comes to competition, so just go out there and see what’s really out there (in terms of competition) and see what you’re up against. competing for scholarships, and fair in general too (is beneficial).

The work did not stop once the summer was over. Hunter knew he still had to improve his game and become a leader at both ends of the court.

“You have to realize that practice isn’t enough if you want to be awesome,” Hunter said. “So you have to put in extra time whenever you can.”

So Gallatin head coach Michael Claxton began opening the gym on Sundays for Hunter. Claxton brings his kids to Gallatin and also rebounds for Hunter as he gets some extra hits.

“It means a lot to me to have a coach who invests so much in you,” Hunter said. “It also builds confidence.”

And it’s paid off so far this season, as Hunter has been a key player offensively for Gallatin.

“If you know you have a player who is going to consistently knock down shots for you and give you 15 to 20 points every night, I think every coach, every team, would love that,” Claxton said. “Just knowing he has the ability to do that is also something that can open things up for his teammates. He gets so much attention that he opens up attacking opportunities for his teammates.

Schlepp said it also helps Gallatin get through those tough late-game situations, like the game against West.

“We can rely on him in our attacking game for sure when nothing else is really going on because like he said he gets that jump shot from mid-range where he can shoot two guys,” said said Schlepp. “He’s tricky when he opens up, so he doesn’t just stand up and shoot.”

As with any player, however, the shots won’t fall every night. But that hasn’t stopped Hunter from fulfilling his other duties as Gallatin’s starting point guard, whether it’s continuing to play defense, rebounding or setting his teammates up on offense.

“And I see him when he’s got those nights off or whatever, he’s passing the time, he’s putting in the extra time to make sure the next time he’s locked in,” Claxton said. “He kept his head mentally strong and he continued to stay in the gym to sort of get out of what some perceive as a ‘shooting crisis’ I guess.”

Claxton added that having your best player also be your hardest-working player is key to creating a winning culture.

“And when you have that combination, now you have a chance to really be successful,” Claxton said. “If your best players aren’t the hardest working ones, both on and off the pitch, I think you’re usually in trouble.”

Hunter eventually wants to play at the college level like his parents, but he has more immediate goals in mind before that. More importantly, that includes leading Gallatin (6-8, 4-6 Eastern AA) to declare this season.

To make it happen, Hunter said he would do whatever it takes. Claxton said he wants Hunter to continue to be a leader, find open spots when the ball isn’t in his hands and continue to grow stronger.

Hunter said he was up to the task. After all, he doesn’t know anything else.

“(Basketball) means everything to me,” Hunter said. “Since I was growing up, it’s kind of what I think about all the time and what I work for all the time. So every decision I make ultimately leads to my game on the basketball court.

Braden Shaw can be reached at [email protected] or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @ByBradenShaw

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