When we were eighth graders, we knew exactly where we belonged during basketball games at the Butte Civic Center.

We sat up on the old, wooden bleachers on the east end of the arena. We goofed around. We tried to talk to girls. Some of us even watched the games.

Those of us who tried to watch, though, were usually too easily distracted. This was when Gary Kane and Todd Ericson were leading a powerhouse Butte High team, too.

I always wanted to go down and sit with the high school students so I could get a better view of the action, but I knew better.

Never would any students from East Middle School or Butte Central Junior High try to sit with the big kids. Best-case scenario would be that they would immediately kick us out. We did not want to even think about the worst case.

The thought of an eighth grader playing with the varsity team would have completely blown our minds. It still does.

Yet, fast forward a few decades, and Butte High’s varsity girls’ basketball team has a star eighth grader.

Cadence Graham hit a 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left on the clock last Tuesday night as Butte High beat Helena High 51-50 at the Ross J. Richardson Gymnasium.

Her Bulldog teammates mobbed Graham as time ran off following the shot that helped Butte High avenge a 51-24 loss to the Bengals less than a month earlier.

They mobbed her again after the officials put 3.5 seconds back on the clock — because Helena was awarded a time out — and senior Laura Rosenleaf tipped an inbounds pass away from the Bengals.

Later that night, Rosenleaf tweeted “Cadence Graham is my hero,” and she was not alone with those sentiments. 

The big shot came three weeks after Graham scored 18 points to lead the Bulldogs to a win over Butte Central in front of a large crowd at the Butte Civic Center.

Graham is able to play in varsity games because the Montana High School Association expanded its rule to let eighth graders play in all sports, except football, beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

Smaller schools were previously allowed to use eighth graders because they had trouble filling out rosters with their low numbers.

With the number of students participating in sports declining all around, the rule was expanded all the way up to Class AA. 

While it is sad that participation is so low that bigger schools need eighth graders to fill out their teams, the emergence of Graham is one of the coolest stories of the school year.

That she is playing varsity is nothing short of remarkable. That she buried that shot is the stuff of legends.

Just when we thought it was going to be the Year of the Freshman — thanks to Butte High diaper dandies Hudson Luedke and Cayde Stajcar — we are living in the Year of the Eighth Grader.

A year ago, Graham was likely looking forward to her career as a Belt Huskie. In August, though, Montana Tech hired Graham’s father, Jeff, to coach the Oredigger women’s basketball team.

Since Cadence is the oldest of Jeff and Megan (Schmitz) Graham’s four children, that might go down as the hire of the century in the Mining City.

Cadence is only the beginning of the Graham Show, and Oredigger Director of Athletics Matt Stepan should be the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade for bringing that excitement to town.

Megan was a Hall of Fame basketball player at Montana Western, so all the credit for the talent goes to her. Jeff gets the credit for applying for a job in Butte and impressing the selection committee enough to get the offer.

Even if his Oredigger teams never win another game, we have to keep this family in town for at least the next 15 years or so.

Of course, based on Graham’s track record, we should be more worried about him winning too many games and being lured away by a bigger school.

Cadence Graham is, without question, the real deal. She plays with the savvy and confidence of a senior.

The same can be said about Luedtke and Stajcar. 

Luedke is the clear leader of the Bulldog boys’ hoops team, even as a freshman. He is also, I believe, the only Butte High freshman to ever earn All-State honors in football. He received a second-team nod at tight end.

Remember how crazy it used to be for a sophomore to even suit up for a varsity football game?

Stajcar, a standout in football and an emerging force on the hardwood, is already one of the best high school baseball players in the state. The sky’s the limit for all three of his high school sports.

He would be a superstar in track, too, if the season did not conflict with baseball.

Before the hoops season began, Stajcar and Luedtke were the talk of the town. They still are, for the most part.

Now, though, they have some younger company, and Graham is not the only eighth grader making some noise in town.

In the fall, Kate DeShaw became the first Butte eighth grader to compete in a varsity sport when she qualified for Butte High’s varsity golf team.

Also in the fall, Aidan Maesar lettered while contributing off the bench for the Butte High boys’ varsity soccer team.

In wrestling, eighth grader Jaeger Hansen, who just happens to be my cousin, qualified for the Class AA State meet for the Butte High Bulldogs at 126 pounds.

At Butte Central, eighth grader Joshua Sutton hit some big shots for the defending Class A State champion Maroons. Several other players at both schools have played in subvarsity games.

We have seen some outstanding four-year varsity players in Butte before. That includes great players like Lexie Nelson, Kloie Thatcher and Tommy Mellott, just to name a few.

As great as they were, it really was something out of the ordinary that they were good enough to contribute as freshmen. Just finding your classes and attendance office can be tough enough at that age.

Kane and Ericson never saw varsity action until they were juniors. Even Butte Central greats Ryan Murphy and Sean Walsh did not play varsity as freshmen, so it really is impressive whenever any player sees time as a ninth grader.

Seeing eighth graders play is tough to wrap our minds around. Seeing one swish a 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left to turn a 50-48 loss into a 51-50 win is simply insane.

Butte High has a pair of surging basketball teams primed to make a run at the Class AA State tournament thanks, in large part, to some freshman and an eighth grader.

It is exciting for the rest of this season and for the years to come. We know the next four years of high school sports in Butte — at least — are really going to be fun.

That is because some outstanding young Mining City athletes figured out that they don’t have to stay up in those old wooden bleachers.

— Bill Foley, who couldn’t even contribute as a senior, can be reached at foles74@gmail.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.