BILLINGS — There is a lot to like about the level of excellence achieved by the boys basketball team at tiny Billings Christian School for the second straight season.
Drew Ouradnik can shoot and score from anywhere, 6-foot-8 Filipp Smirnov is a tremendous rebounder and nobody likes playing suffocating defense more than Elijah Gregory, Michael Feralio and the rest of the Warriors.
Right in the middle of it all is volunteer head coach Craig Carse, the former Montana State Billings mentor, who has a history of heart problems and is trying not to get too excited as Billings Christian prepares to defend its National Christian School Athletic Association (NCSAA) championship.
“I am having the most fun I’ve ever had in coaching,” said Carse, 64, who is in his second season at the private West End school.
There is already a 2019 national championship banner decorating the wall in the gymnasium at Billings Christian School. The Warriors, 47-3 over the past two seasons, will be looking to duplicate that special feat beginning Thursday night.
That’s when undefeated Billings Christian begins play at this year’s national tournament, which runs through Saturday at Mount Vernon Nazarene College in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
The Warriors have a spotless 23-0 record this season, are ranked 13th nationally among all of the NCSAA boys’ programs and are riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 23 games.
They will open up against unranked Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy of Virginia at 5:30 p.m. (Mountain time).
“I love it. I love the opportunity presented to us,” Feralio said. “We all work hard and put a lot of hours in. We are ready to go compete.”
The 300-student school (preschool through 12th grade), located off Grand Avenue, has students from 46 different churches in Billings, and is fresh off of winning the Montana Christian Athletic Association state championship on Feb. 22 in Helena.
“We’re not really pushovers, I guess,” said Ouradnik, a 6-2 senior. ‘We were able to walk the walk.”
The rugged Ouradnik, a small forward, is the second-leading scorer nationally with his average of 27 points per game. He is looking to go play somewhere in college.
In addition to their close bond and shared faith, the Warriors’ eye-catching elements out on the court include a strong inside game offensively and relentless man-to-man pressure on defense.
While at MSUB, Carse’s teams in the mid-1990s usually led the NCAA Division II ranks in scoring and 3-pointers made. These days, he is preaching something different.
“I would love to shoot the three and run up and down, but you have to have people that can do it,” Carse said. “So what we can do is play hard, play good defense and be selective in our offense.
“A lot of our offense comes from our defense.”
Billings Christian, which has an enthusiastic following, won the Division 4C category at nationals last year, defeating teams from Chicago, Philadelphia and New York along the way.
Seven players on this year’s team were part of last year’s national title team. That group includes seniors Ouradnik and Bo Bentz, juniors Feralio, Gregory and Brad Harp, and sophomores Kaan Akal and Ethan Allsop.
“It gives me a sense of pride that my team was one of the best in the nation,” Gregory said. “Not many people can say that.”
Akal is an exchange student from Turkey, as is freshman point guard Ata Gultekin. Two more players are from Russia, Smirnov and freshman Vlad Zaitsau.
Akal and Gultekin are living with Feralio and his family.
“These are lifelong friendships,” Feralio said. “You get to go out and put it out on the basketball court, too. It’s awesome.”
Ouradnik is playing alongside his cousin, Bentz (who is bound for the Air Force) and younger brother, Spencer.
“It’s fun to be able to play the sport I love, and doing it with the people I love, as well,” he said.
Ouradnik, who was the MVP of the state tournament, is from Minnesota. He scored 25 points in the state championship game, an 83-43 victory over Gallatin Valley at Carroll College in Helena.
This season, Billings Christian won a majority of its games by 50 or more points, but won a tough contest, beating Stillwater Christian 77-69 in overtime, in the state semifinals behind Ouradnik’s 42 points.
“It was a pretty competitive game, but we believed in ourselves,” Akal said. “At clutch times, everybody did their jobs.”
Carse, who is teaching biology and Bible classes at Billings Christian and is also helping out with strength and conditioning sessions, was selected as the 2019 coach the year by the NCSAA.
“That was more thrilling to me than being named college coach of the year,” Carse said. “It was just a blast.”
Ouradnik, with family in Billings, said he first met Carse while attending one of his camps a couple of summers ago.
“Just from the get-go he was telling me things and showing me things I haven’t seen ever,” he said. “It was at that point, I thought I might need to give this guy a shot … take me under his wing.”
Carse coached at MSUB from 1995-2008. After his contract wasn’t renewed, he landed at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, a Christian college, where he coached from 2008 until he retired in 2017 for health reasons and returned to Billings.
“My children are here. My grandchildren,” Carse said. “And this is where my wife wanted to live.”
During a Hall of Fame career, he won 442 games in 26 years as a head men’s coach at the NCAA II, III and NAIA levels. He was an assistant coach at Louisiana State for seven years and directed West Virginia State to the championship game at the NAIA Tournament in Kansas City in 1987.
Carse said he isn’t as animated, or as intense, on the sideline as he once was at MSUB.
“Part of that is the medications I take,” he said. “Part of it is being smart enough to not want to spend any more time at the hospital.”
Carse has suffered multiple strokes over the years and has undergone eight heart surgeries, including a CardioSEAL implant designed to close holes in the heart, between 2005 and 2018.
“I have an EKG on me,” he said. “I monitor myself (via his phone) daily, 24 hours a day. It goes right to my doctor’s office. They’re able to read my printouts every day.”
On occasion, Feralio said he “gets worried” about his coach.
“Believe me, he gives us more than he should sometimes,” he said. “His passion and love for the game, and for us, is unmatched.”
Following his latest heart surgery in February 2018, Carse said he spent most of his recovery time at home “sitting around and watching television.”
His doctors, however, had a better idea. “Instead of sitting on the couch watching SportsCenter, they told me to try and find something to do,” Carse said.
After passing by Billings Christian on a Sunday drive with his wife, Carse said the thought of possibly coaching there crossed his mind. One of his former MSUB players, Eddie Cochran, said it would be a good move — and that there was an opening.
Carse pursued it.
“This is a wonderful situation for me,” he said.
Former longtime Billings Christian head coach Mike Williams, an MSUB grad, and Todd Harp, a parent who coaches the junior varsity team, are serving as Carse’s assistants.
There are 44 boys in the high school, and with national championship fervor still reigning on campus, 32 turned out for basketball this season, Carse said.
Now the Warriors are in position to win it all once again.
“Just playing with character and doing the best job we can,” Gregory said of the winning formula. “Leave it all out on the floor. Don’t have any regrets when it is all over.”
Email Bill Bighaus at Bill.Bighaus@406mtsports.com