Smooth operator


Feb. 23—Smooth Operator

Hunter Hickey gives Flathead a steady hand

By FRITZ NEIGHBOR

Daily Inter Lake

The Flathead Braves have length, shooting and athleticism, and perhaps the most athletic Brave among them has had to cool his jet-pack heels of late.

Senior guard Hunter Hickey said he’s good to play in tonight’s crosstown boys’ basketball game against Glacier at the Flathead gym, and that’s a welcome sight for the hosts.

They’ve won a couple without his 14-point scoring average, going 2-2 since he hyperextended a knee against Sentinel on Feb. 6. The 6-6 Braves would rather see his hairstyle and hops on the court against the 5-8 Wolfpack.

“I think what’s amazing watching Hunter is how smooth of a player he is,” said Flathead coach Dirk Johnsrud. “He sees the floor so well. He just makes plays. He’s a quiet kid; he leads by example. His teammates trust him.

“As my first year as head coach, it’s been heartbreaking seeing a kid that loves the game this much not be able to play.”

Hickey is also a converted point guard, to hear others tell it. Senior forward Gabe Adams says they met in sixth grade, and all Hickey did was handle the rock.

“He’s more of a shooting guard now, but in middle school he was a true point guard,” Adams said. “He weighed about 80 pounds, soaking wet, but he could really dribble and shoot and pass the ball. One of those guys that was all skill, and then got the athletic part later.”

Fast forward to Flathead’s home opener against Missoula Big Sky on Jan. 9. Flathead started quick — junior Joston Cripe was lighting it up from the point and on one first-half miss, the 6-foot-2 Hickey tip-dunked the rebound.

This leaping ability showed up last year: Adams said after every practice Hickey was trying to throw down two-handed dunks until, one day, he was doing it easily.

Hickey is not absolutely certain where the hops came from. He’s done the drills to improve, certainly. His parents are athletic, and their parents were athletic.

“I don’t think I got into the jumping right away,” he said. “But people would throw lobs and I would just go up and get it.”

His dad Tyler left Flathead High early, getting a GED and working full time a couple years ahead of his classmates’ graduation. He excelled at wrestling as a youngster, for Jeff Anderson. Then he was in the workforce, but he played city league hoops (with Hunter) and has seen his oldest son put in the work.

“He’s tried wrestling, and he tried football and was a good receiver,” dad said. “But his heart was always in basketball. He did the vertical drills all summer. That probably helped.”

Another possible boost: Tyler’s dad Bob, a standout defensive end at Flathead High.

“He was an animal,” Tyler Hickey said.

“Bob Hickey was defensive player of the year in 1980 for the Western AA,” said Jeff Epperly, the quarterback on that football team. “Great athlete, and just a great guy. He wasn’t super tall, but so stinking quick and athletic. And explosive, at D-lineman. And a leader.”

And Bob had curly hair, a signature look for Hunter that didn’t make it to his younger brothers Treker (black, straight) and Wyatt (red, flowing — these are Hunter’s words).

That coif has been more subdued this season. Johnsrud, in one of his first decisions as coach, made the team get haircuts.

“It was quite a big trim,” Hunter Hickey said. “They probably took six inches of hair.”

Epperly’s son, the 6-9 Ezra, is in the same class as Hickey and Adams. Jeff’s father, the late Bill Epperly, helped him coach the middle school travel team called the Wild Bills. Flathead’s Ethan VandenBosch played, as did Bigfork standouts Walker Fisher and Isaac Bjorge.

Jeff Epperly then coached Flathead’s freshman team, and made Hickey play the point.

“He did it, and did a really good job,” Epperly said.”But you could tell, point guard was not his mindset.”

Now, Epperly says, “I don’t think he has the ball more than 28 seconds a game, and he’ll score 20 points. Maybe 25 seconds.

“He just doesn’t need the ball. He’ll chase down the rebound, move without the ball. You don’t see that very much in high school. It’s another thing that makes him special.”

“We’ve all played travel ball with Epperly since like sixth grade,” Hickey noted. “And then ever since Joston’s freshman year, he’s been with us. It definitely helps to have us playing that long together.”

The result is a senior season much more satisfying than last year’s three-win campaign. It’s not a particularly deep team, and even less so when Hickey is out. The demonstrative Johnsrud, who coached these seniors two years ago on the junior varsity, has helped.

“I’ve enjoyed it so much,” Hickey said. “Honestly he gets more excited about the game than some of the players. He loves it. Especially in like practices, it’s like he’s playing, honestly. He just gets super pumped up.”

Johnsrud often says of a player, “He’s exciting to watch.” No one fits the bill more than Hickey, who would like to play college basketball if the opportunity arose.

“To be honest I’m not quite sure what I want to do yet,” he said, but that wasn’t exactly true. The night he was injured, early in the second quarter, he kept playing and ended with 18 points. He would like to pick up where he left off.

“Even if I don’t get clearance, it might be hard to talk me out of playing,” HIckey said last week. “I hope to make it back by Glacier. That’s the goal. I want to play in the crosstown game, bad.”



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