They met kindergarten, and their bond grew closer playing together on a traveling basketball team in second grade.

Nine years later, Deegan Williams and McKale Holte are sophomore starters on the Thunder Basin High School boys team, and they’re making varsity basketball look like second nature.

The young guns have not only adjusted quickly to varsity-level play, they’ve been key pieces in a 10-2 start for the Bolts, the No. 3-ranked Class 4A team in Wyoming.

Playing against teams of mostly juniors and seniors, the pair more than hold their own, Williams with his command of the point guard position and Holte with his dead-eye shooting.

Thunder Basin’s 3-point-shooting offense flows through Williams and he has stepped into the role like a seasoned senior. While the Bolt shooters flow around the perimeter looking for open shots, Williams seems to see everything on the court.

Often not even looking where he is passing, Williams almost always finds the open man — even if it means turning down a shot himself. One crossover is often enough to get by a defender. A lefty, his silky smooth, yet deceptive, pace allows him to get almost anywhere he wants on the court.

While Williams pokes holes in the defense and forces opponents to help, Holte is one of four Thunder Basin sharpshooters poised to catch the pass.

“I really like playing with Deegan. He’s probably the most unselfish player I’ve ever met,” Holte said. “He just wants to win. He doesn’t care if he scores zero points, as long as we win.”

Holte has been one of the main benefactors of Williams’ pinpoint passes and is shooting 3-pointers at an eye-popping rate. He takes a lot of them (7.7 per game) and makes a lot (44%).

He has been a perfect fit within Thunder Basin’s offense, which shoots more 3s than any team in the state.

Both sophomores have established clear roles on the team with Williams, the playmaker and Holte a knockdown shooter with a quick trigger.

It comes from a chemistry they’ve been developing since they laced up their Nikes together for the first time in second grade.

“My job is just to get him the ball so he can go 50% from 3 or whatever he is,” Williams said. “He’s been the scorer and I’ve been the passer. That’s how we’ve played our whole lives and it’s just carried over to now.”

Years in the making

The Williams-Holte connection was present in Gillette before Deegan and McKale arrived on the scene. Their fathers, TBHS coach Rory Williams and Matt Holte, were teammates on youth teams growing up and played together on Campbell County High School’s 1994 state championship team.

Matt was a year older than Rory, but their sons are the same age and arrived at the same kindergarten in 2009. Both already had basketballs in their hands since before they could remember.

Rory Williams joked that Deegan “had a ball in his hands right when he came out of the womb.”

That wasn’t too far off, for Deegan or McKale.

By the time each was 2 or 3 years old, there wasn’t much peace and quiet in the Williams or Holte house. That’s because Deegan and McKale each had the dream setup — a Nerf hoop and miniature basketball set.

“At 2 or 3 years old, you’re starting to work on their shots for crying out loud,” Rory Williams said.

McKale was no different. Matt Holte said that by the time his son was 2 or 3 years old, he would come downstairs in the morning, watch SportsCenter and start playing on his Nerf hoop.

Growing up like that, it didn’t take long for Deegan and McKale to find each other at Paintbrush Elementary School.

“Kids kind of gravitate toward kids that have the same things in common,” Rory Williams said. “I think Deegan and McKale were good buds right off the bat.”

Like kindergartner’s do, the two tried to be patient until they could hit the playground for recess. When the time came, they went straight to the basketball court.

“Everyday at recess we’d just play basketball together,” Deegan said.

Deegan and McKale’s quick friendship grew over the next few years, with sports right at the center. Just playing together at recess wasn’t enough anymore and soon they were going to each other’s houses to play.

“McKale always had Deegan in the backyard doing something — basketball, football — they’ve been hanging out for quite a while,” Matt Holte said. “They’re pretty good friends, which all started with basketball.”

Rory Williams was a teacher at Paintbrush Elementary when the two were in kindergarten and he noticed that his son was part of a handful of youngsters who already had an itch for basketball.

That sparked the idea for a traveling basketball team, which Rory Williams, Dan Baker and Doug Cox coached from the time their kids were in second grade.

“That team got started with a lot of kids that went to Paintbrush and were kindergartner buddies,” Rory Williams said. “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s go out and find the best kids in Gillette.’ It was, ‘OK, you guys are buddies in kindergarten class, you want to go to open gym? Let’s go.’”

The traveling team didn’t shy away from tough competition and often played tournaments in Denver. It played with five guards most of the time and being undersized became a common theme.

“There were games with these tall kids that would look at them and say, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” said McKale’s mother, Marci Holte. “And they would go out and beat them.”

As the years passed, the playing styles that Deegan and McKale are becoming known for in high school were already taking form.

Even in elementary and junior high, it only took one time watching McKale shoot a ball to tell that he had a special talent.

“He’s always had really good form. He’s been one of those that is very mechanical on his shot,” Rory Williams said. “When you have all the right pieces to the shot, you’re going to be very consistent. McKale had that at a young age.

“I would say his shooting form has not really changed since probably second or third grade. It’s been that solid.”

McKale grew up watching Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors and how he helped transform the NBA into a 3-point shooting league. That’s the way he wants to play, too.

“I’ve just always wanted to shoot the ball good,” McKale said. “Shooting has always been a big part of the game since I started playing, so I just wanted to be a good shooter.”

While Curry was a player McKale watched and tried to mimic, Deegan’s favorite player was NBA All-Star star Russell Westbrook — a point guard who the offense exclusively ran through.

While Deegan has a much quieter court demeanor and may pass a little more than Westbrook, there are similarities in the way he commands an offense.

“Since that young age, (Deegan) has kind of been a point guard and has had the ball in his hands a lot,” Rory Williams said. “He wants to facilitate the offense, and he’s kind of always been a pass-first type of kid. Sometimes, I think he’s too unselfish.”

The traveling basketball team that included current sophomores Ethan Cox, Cade Ayers and Ryan Baker was wrapping up. Their final tournament was in Las Vegas and the group won the U15 division.

“That Vegas tournament we went to last year, they played teams from all over the United States and there were even some teams from across the world,” Marci Holte said.

By the time they got to high school, Deegan and McKale knew each other’s playing styles as well as their own.

“We’ve played together since second grade, so it’s just the chemistry,” Deegan said. “I know what he’s going to do every possession. He knows what I’m going to do.”

Time to step up

Deegan and McKale both averaged about five minutes of varsity playing time their freshman seasons. But with the departure of a couple of seniors, their time to assume a bigger role came rushing at them.

Making the jump from playing five minutes a game as freshmen to becoming starters as sophomores is asking a lot. But their senior teammates immediately put their trust in Deegan and McKale.

“Practicing with them last year, we got the trust, so that wasn’t an issue at all,” senior teammate Hayden Sylte said. “All of us want to win and they’re going to help us win, so might as well make them feel welcome.”

The Bolts operate with five perimeter players and are averaging almost 40 3-point attempts per game this season. Deegan and McKale have fit into that system almost seamlessly.

Four of the five starters, including Deegan and McKale, are shooting more than 42% from beyond the arc. Much of that has to do with the open looks Deegan can create off the dribble.

“As a shooter, it’s really fun because you know Deegan’s going to get in there. And if it’s contested, he’s going to kick it, whether it’s right there or across the court to the wide open guy,” Sylte said. “You know he’s going to get it to the right guy at the right time.”

Just 12 games into their first season as starters, Deegan and McKale have already posted signature games.

Deegan had a 4A single-game high of 12 assists in a blowout win over Riverton. But during the third-place game at the Energy Classic, it was his scoring ability that was on display.

Thunder Ridge High of Idaho Falls, Idaho, played the toughest man-to-man perimeter defense the Bolts had seen all season, but that left the lane open for Deegan.

He drove to the basket time after time and scored 12 fourth-quarter points to force overtime and the Bolts eventually won 58-54.

Through 12 games, Deegan has already established himself as one of 4A’s top passers and defenders. He leads the state in both assists and steals per game.

As for McKale, he showed the ability to catch fire from the season’s first tournament, where he averaged almost 14 points a game. The real eye-opener was during a win over Riverton the following weekend.

McKale hit seven 3-pointers in that game — all in the first half and all in a row. He is already one of the conference’s top shooters and is attempting eight 3s per game, compared to an average of 2.9 from the other nine players in the top 10.

“We’ve all seen him shoot at that level for a long time,” Rory Williams said. “He can get it going, like a game in Riverton where he hits seven threes in a row. You just expect every time he shoots the ball, it’s going to go in.”

Deegan and McKale are only about a third of the way through their sophomore campaigns, but so far it’s been a coming out party.

“Once we got into it, me and him knew that we belonged,” Deegan said. “I think we just play with confidence, knowing that we have to step up for two more years after this. So why not start this year?”

What started out as two toddlers finding their love for basketball on mini hoops has turned into much more.

Deegan and McKale forged a friendship on the playground and in the gym that’s grown into a connection that’s almost like they’re in each others’ minds.

Now they are ready to show the rest of the state just how good a sophomore duo can be at the varsity level.

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