Such is the strength of the Columbia Falls boys’ basketball program that even in a year when no starters return, the Wildcats are still favored to win the Northwestern A.
Columbia Falls lost all five starters off a team that went 19-4 and lost in the State A title game to Dillon in March. But the cupboard is never bare: Eight lettermen return.
That includes Luke Kazlauskas, a junior guard who in March helped the Wildcats make their sixth title-game appearance in 10 years.
The Wildcats no doubt remember that title game ended in a 54-39 loss to Dillon – a team that made its fourth championship appearance in six seasons.
The cupboard isn’t bare in Dillon either. The Beavers remain co-favorites, along with Stevensville, in the Southwestern A.
Here’s a look at both conferences, which each send two teams to the State A tournament:
“It’s nice to have that respect,” said Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg, who has guided the Wildcats to four State A crowns. “But at the same time these kids have practiced with those teams these last couple years. Now is their chance; I think they’re ready for it.”
Kazlauskas averaged nearly 10 points off the bench last year; in Ty Morgan, Finberg hopes he has a similar player. The Wildcats also have length in 6-foot-4 Jared Trinastich.
“We don’t have the big headliner that we maybe had in the past, with (Nick) Emerson or (Austin) Barth,” Finberg said. “But these kids have had very successful freshman and sophomore seasons.”
Polson lost three starters, including shooting guard Zach Camel, but picked up a couple transfers in Andrew Weltz (Forks, Wash.) and Cedrick Earth Boy (Ronan). The Pirates will rely heavily on two players with the most experience: forward Will Davey and center Riley Sampson.
Whitefish had state-tourney thoughts last year before Polson upended the Bulldogs in a challenge game. The Bulldogs have two starters back, including 5-6 guard Cooper Olson, and head coach Mark Casazza is banking on a strong junior class and team speed to make a difference.
Four returning starters have Frenchtown aiming high after a 6-14 campaign a year ago. Coach Michael Botsford celebrates his team’s chemistry and speed: “We talk about having this be an indoor track season,” he said.
John Chapman is a capable shooter for the Broncs, who also have length in the 6-4 Kyle Cyr.
Libby has five seniors returning, including 6-2 post player Kraig Nelson, but keying the Loggers will be guard Jared Winslow. The junior led the league in scoring a year ago at 14.3 ppg.
Stevensville took a fairly young team to its first state tournament in four seasons last year. Now that 6-4 Jesse Sims is a sophomore and 6-4 Zach Gavlak is a junior, the Yellowjackets aren’t about to settle for anything less.
Add in shooting guard Jared Schultz and Stevi should be the team to beat. Problem is, Dillon is still in the league. The two teams finished in a dead heat in preseason polling.
The Beavers graduated four starters but the one who returns – 6-4 Ben Folsom (11 points, 5 rebounds a game) – is a dandy. Coach Terry Thomas intends to push the tempo with a team that includes 6-7 senior Caleb Gillis.
“Once again, Tinsel Town should be tough to deal with,” Stevi coach Keith Chambers said of Dillon. “They are well-coached, play hard and have some really good athletes.”
Eighth-year Butte Central coach Brodie Kelly says this year’s team has played more basketball than any he’s coached. Guard Brady Tippett is the top returnee; if 6-5 senior Emmett McCarthy blossoms like Kelly expects, the Maroons could be tough.
A knee injury to 6-5 Kelton Pitzinger has made Hamilton a bit smaller, and coach Toby Stack will have the Broncs pushing the ball and shooting plenty from outside the arc. Reese Isherwood (5 ppg) is the top returning scorer.
There’s a new coach in Anaconda: Bill Hill, who spent many years running AAU teams from the area. The Copperheads have one starter back – Jackson Wagner, a junior who averaged 10 points for a team that didn’t win a game last season.
Corvallis enters the post-Riley Bradshaw Era with a new coach as well in Joe Jessop. The 1990 CHS graduate – a cousin to Blue Devil girls’ coach Jay Jessop – has high hopes for 6-5 junior Chase Walker as well his own son, senior point guard Jansen Jessop.
Gone is the dribble-drive that utilized the talents of Bradshaw, who averaged 22.5 points a game a year ago. The Blue Devils are aiming to be balanced on offense and tough on D.
Whether that’s enough to catch Stevensville is the question for Joe Jessop.
“I don’t know how you could pick anybody else,” he said of the Jackets. “I know Dillon is always tough, but I think Stevi has the most talent in the conference ... by a long ways.”