Don Luce. Bill Schulte. Craig and Cary Finberg. For years, Columbia Falls was known for its aluminum plant, Bad Rock Canyon, and a string of fine high-school athletes, most notably basketball players. Yet somehow, the Flathead Valley town never managed to earn a state boys' basketball championship.
Mark Beckwith. Bill McMasters. Mark Bond.
Columbia Falls had its moments. The 1965 Wildcats ended Missoula County's state record 56-game winning streak, then advanced to the state title game, only to lose to Great Falls on a last-second shot by Jack Gillespie. Columbia Falls also lost state title tilts in 1963 and 1975.
Dave Crosswhite. Todd Schmautz. Mike Caldwell. Beau Hill.
Well, the wait is finally over.
It ended last weekend in Belgrade, with a team of rangy, ultra quick athletes that beat Colstrip, two-time defending champion Browning and, in the championship game, top-ranked Billings Central 53-47, in overtime.
"We've come close over the years, we just could never quite get it done," said Cary Finberg in a raucous locker room, after guiding his alma mater to the Class A summit in his seventh season at the helm. "You don't think about it. Right now we're just happy. The kids knew that had a chance to make history, and they seized that opportunity."
Columbia Falls came into the tournament unranked and, frankly, under appreciated. But then, that was natural enough, considering that they owned a 6-6 record in mid-January. But then they thumped Bigfork at home, 95-77, squeezed past Ronan on the road, 65-63, and traveled up the road to beat Whitefish 81-64 - the first win on the court of their archrival in 13 years.
The Wildcats never looked back, closing the season with a 12-game winning streak.
Columbia Falls were not only successful, but entertaining. The Wildcats scrambled all over the place, swarming their opponents with a variety of full-court and half-court pressure defenses.
Billings Central, which had lost to only one Class A opponent all season, presented matchup problems because of its superior size and the ballhandling ability of point guard Cooper Warren. Central did dominate the backboards, outrebounding Columbia Falls 36-19. But the Wildcats countered that by forcing 23 turnovers, and forging a 27-8 bulge in points off turnovers.
Jesse Grilley led the Wildcats with a career-high 19 points, and Tyler Jones (12) and Darin Nau (10) also scored in double figures.
"We thought we could get them 'em in the halfcourt with our quickness," Finberg said. "We just wanted to eliminate their easy baskets, and use our quickness to get into the passing lanes. And the kids played tremendous basketball."
Nau, Columbia Falls' best shooter, missed most of the first half in foul trouble but the Wildcats still led 28-23 at intermission. Central clawed back from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter, sending the game into overtime when Warren was fouled on an offensive rebound and made two free throws with seven seconds left.
"At halftime, we said Darin hasn't played much and we're still ahead," Finberg said. "At the end (of regulation), we said, 'Hey, we've gone this far, let's just continue.' We just knew the kids would make the plays, and they did."
Columbia Falls blanked Central 6-0 in overtime, getting four free throws from Jones and two more from Jesse Grilley. They were both named to the all-tournament team, along with Nau and Jeremy Grilley, Jesse's twin brother.
A decade ago, the Wildcats were rock bottom, with back-to-back 1-19 seasons. Today, they finally have a state championship trophy to put in the display case.
"We're back on the map," Finberg said.