Frenchtown coach Jim Tolman’s return has been triumphant: He has guided the Broncs to their best season since they went 24-3 and took third at the 1999 State B girls’ basketball tournament.
The Broncs, who’ve been in the Class A ranks since 2003-04, are an impressive 18-2. Their reward is a first-round pairing with defending champion Butte Central at State A tournament Thursday.
“In Butte,” noted Tolman with a chuckle.
But in the 18-4 Maroons, whom the Broncs play at 6:30 p.m. at the Butte Civic Center, Tolman sees a lot of his own team.
“I was able to watch them against Stevensville in that challenge game,” he said of the Maroons’ 52-42 win over the Yellowjackets last week. “And they reminded me of us: They’re fairly athletic and experienced.”
And well-coached: Each play myriad defenses and like to pressure the ball.
Frenchtown has a star in Sarah Lester, who is the best 3-point shooter, third-best rebounder, top shot-blocker and second-leading scorer in the Northwestern A. But her scoring average (14.1 points) has come down this season and those of Janessa Stavish (10 ppg) and Emma Oostdyk (8.6) have come up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone really dominate in scoring,” said Tolman, who coached the Broncs during their late-90s run. “I just think it’s harder to defend a team that has multiple threats.”
Butte Central has the same sort of balance: Brynne Kambich is a sturdy inside player who averages 12.5 points a game; Kacie McKeon runs the point but has also hit 47 3-pointers (out of 118 attempts, a 40 percent clip) while averaging 13.3 points. Danee Leary adds another 10 ppg.
The tournament begins at 12:30 p.m. with Billings Central and Havre squaring off, with surging Dillon and Polson playing the second game. The nightcap has Eastern A champion Laurel battling Belgrade.
The Polson-Dillon matchup is equally intriguing in that the Pirates beat Dillon 49-39 the first weekend of the season and Dillon went on to lose eight of its first 11 games.
Since then, though, the Beavers have gone 8-2 with a win over Butte Central. The surge coincided with the return of Kansas Suenram from shoulder issues.
“We weren’t sure, but we were hoping she’d be back,” Dillon coach Gabe Walker said of Suenram, a 5-foot-7 junior who has averaged 6.6 points in 11 games. “It really gave us a boost – not just having a good player but the mental boost she gave our team. She’s a good defender, she rebounds, and she’s a physical player.
“I think toughness is the word there.”
Polson counters with a Riley Kenney, a 5-foot-10 senior forward who pours in 19.4 points a game.
Head coach Randy Kelley’s hope is that the Pirates’ supporting cast — Anna DiGiallonardo (7 ppg), point guard Mariah Hamel (6.5 ppg), Heidi Rausch (6.2 ppg) and Mackenzie Banner (5 ppg) – raise their games; Dillon threw a box-and-one at Stevi standout Alicia Sims two weeks ago, and it seems likely Kenney will face the same sort of defense.
Polson can expect a low-scoring game with Dillon, but the Pirates have become more adept at that approach as the season has worn on.
“We’ve got a bunch of hard workers, it’s that simple,” Kelley said. “I think they know Riley’s going to have her hands full, and we need some girls to step up.”
Kelley lauded Hamel for a job well done at divisionals, and Rausch, who averages 7.3 rebounds a night despite standing 5-foot-7. “And that’s stretching it a little bit,” he said.
Kenney, though, is the key. She led the Northwestern A in shooting (47 percent) and was second in the league in rebounding (9.8).
“She’s one of those girls that’s hard to get out of the gym,” said Kelley, who said Kenney has not been recruited much despite her skills on the court and in the classroom (a 4.0 grade-point average). “She puts a lot of time in. That’s why we’re successful at the offensive end, because of everything she does for us.”
Five of the eight teams who played state last year are back, including Laurel, winners of 11 straight. The Locomotives lost in last year’s title game, 52-43, to the Maroons.
It is anybody’s tournament to win.
“We’re really excited,” Tolman said of the Broncs, whose only losses came to Stevensville on the way to the Northwestern A crown. “That’s been our goal all long – play Saturday nights. There are eight quality teams there, so it’s going to be who’s playing the best.”
NOTES: Billings Central beat Dillon in last year’s State A consolation game. …. Belgrade also made last year’s tournament. … Laurel forward Hannah Weishoff averages 11 points and 10 rebounds a game. … Billings Central boasts a balanced lineup led by guard Kayla Lucas. … Belgrade’s Fowler Dylan averages 11.4 ppg. … Chanal Standing Rock (.6 ppg) and Peyton Filius (8.6 ppg) lead the Havre Blue Ponies. … Billings Central has five state titles to its credit, including 2010. … Laurel won its only title in 2006. … Polson has made one title-game appearance, losing the 1993 A championship to Colstrip. … Frenchtown’s only title-game appearance came at the 1998 State B, a 45-37 loss to Florence. … Havre (1976 and ’78, 1997), Dillon and Butte Central each have three state crowns to their credit.