Short on depth but long on talent, the Stevensville Yellowjackets have to be thinking this is their year.
It is, after all, the Yellowjackets’ fourth season with 6-foot-3 center Alycia Sims, a University of Montana signee who is considered by some to be the best player in the state.
But the senior’s talent alone is no guarantee: Stevensville is still chasing its first state tournament berth since 1998. While the Southwestern A coaches have voted the Jackets No. 1 in the league, there is work to be done to derail the likes of Butte Central, Hamilton and Anaconda.
“I know we have some real talent,” said Stevi coach Brandon Day, who is 31-13 in two seasons with the Yellowjackets. “But we’re a little bit shallow. We don’t have a lot of depth.”
One team that does is Columbia Falls. The Wildkats, with Cary Finberg back for a second season of double duty (he’s coached the Wildcat boys to five state titles) have 10 returning letter winners and the role of favorite in the Northwestern A.
Here’s a quick look at both leagues:
Hurting Stevi early will be the absence of forward Kyla Paulson, who averaged almost 12 points a game last season. The 5-9 junior is working back from knee surgery.
“She’s on the mend,” said Day, who is hoping for big things from the two Carlys – sophomore guards Carly Vercruyssen and Carly Sebastian – while Paulson recovers.
Junior swing player Kayla Peterson and senior guard Bailey Vercruyssen also complement Sims, who averaged 17.6 points and 8.2 rebounds a year ago.
“That’s a nice thing to have back this year,” Day said of Sims, with whom Stevi has won 37 of 51 games. “I think have some girls around here who can hit some shots.
“The other thing is right now we have great chemistry. It should be fun.”
Butte Central has three starters back from a team that came close to a second straight state title; the Maroons lost 46-36 to Billings Central in last year’s championship.
Forward Danee Leary is the most decorated player, after averaging 10 points and seven rebounds a year ago, but the Maroons also have a 6-1 center in Mariah Cooney.
The up-and-coming team could be Hamilton, despite its youth. Mark Albert, who returns to the sidelines after two seasons away, has a hard-charging guard in Taylor Goligoski and a strong supporting cast of sophomores.
Albert coached most of them, too, while the group played in more than 90 games as junior high athletes. The group includes his daughter, Jaylee Albert, and shooters Kali Hayes and Brianna Huggans. Sami Kratofil, a 6-1 junior, gives the Broncs an inside presence.
Anaconda lost three key players off a team that missed out on a divisional title – and state – for the first time in eight seasons. But high-scoring guard Courtney Moodry (12.4 ppg) could lead the Copperheads back to the top.
Dillon limped to a 4-9 start a year ago before a strong finish that included a divisional title. The Beavers lost all-state post player Charlee Hahnkamp but has a trio of slick guards, including sophomore Audrey Schurg.
Corvallis has Lakyn Connors, a double-figure scorer a year ago, back this season but not fellow track star Sadi Henderson. That and the transfer of promising freshman Kloie Nye to Hamilton leaves Blue Devils’ coach Jay Jessop a little short-handed, but he has size in Carlie Jessop (5-11) and Connors and Jordan Miller, both 5-9.
Columbia Falls, 9-12 a year ago, is trending up behind 6-0 junior forward Haley Belgarde and 5-9 senior guard Hope Burlage. Both averaged in double figures; Belgarde snared 11 rebounds a night.
Beyond that the Wildcats have size, in 6-0 junior Andrea Getts and 5-11 sophomore Winter Kemppainen, and skill in 5-8 sophomore Ciera Finberg, who came on strong late last season.
Frenchtown lost just two starters, including all-state player Sarah Lester. But in guards Kayla Blood and Abby Indreland and junior post Vanessa Stavish, the Broncs have enough firepower for a second straight state-tourney run.
The Polson Pirates also lost a prolific scorer in Riley Kenney; those points fall to post Heidi Rausch and guards Mackenzie Banner and Anna DiGiallonardo. Coach Randy Kelley is counting on some strong defense to ignite the Pirates’ O.
Libby and Whitefish combined for just six wins a year ago, but could be much improved. Ashley Brewer and Simone Craft lead Whitefish, while Libby is led by junior Taylor Quinn.
“They’re pups,” coach Jim May said of the Loggers, who boast one senior and two juniors. “But they will be competitive by the end of the year.”
The Eastern Division has dominated in recent years, with Billings Central winning two state titles and Laurel prevailing once in the last three seasons.
Both teams should be top-notch again, although Hardin could challenge for Eastern A honors.
Butte Central has qualified for two straight State A championship games, and Stevensville, led by Alycia Sims, could also be a contender for state honors.
The Lewistown girls have a new coach in Deena Wier. She’s a former Fergus High athlete who has been serving as an assistant coach for the highly successful Lewistown girls’ volleyball program. Beth Wright is one of two seniors on the team. She was a parttime starter a year ago. Kaylie Grover, a transfer from Laurel, is the other senior. Juniors Mikaela Olson and Katie Diminguez will also contribute for the Eagles.
In Browning, Ray Augare has taken over the girls’ program after 12 seasons as head boys’ coach. The Indians are led by senior point guard Martie EagleFeathers, who averaged about 15 ppg last year. Courtney Juneau, Ashley Burd, Jessica McGee and Brooke Carlson are also solid players.
Havre could well be the class of Central A.
Veteran coach Dustin Kraske’s team is led by junior guards Brandy Lambourne and Peyton Filius, who combined for about 18 ppg a year ago. Also returning for the Ponies are Neya Bischoff, the team’s lone senior, and sophomore Morgan Mazurkiewicz.
Competitive fire leads Leary at BC
Danee Leary has a picture-perfect shot.
The senior on the Butte Central girls’ basketball team is capable of going off for big-time numbers, as is evident by her 26-point performance against Corvallis during her junior season.
BC coach Meg Murphy says the shot is reminiscent of Leary’s father, Dan, a 1989 Butte Central graduate who was one of the school’s all-time great 3-point shooters.
“She has that natural shot, like Danny,” Murphy says. “She’s very fluid like he was. If she makes her first one, you better set up about five screens for her for the next five possessions because she’ll drain them. I watched her beat Belgrade by herself this summer. In the first half she had seven or eight threes.”
Leary, though, would rather be stopping opponents from making shots.
“I love defense,” she says. “I’m competitive and aggressive, and I like to be mean a little bit. I like to shoot around the perimeter, too, but I like defense, boxing out and rebounding, that kind of stuff.”
That is music to the ears of Montana Tech coach Kerie DePell, who recently signed Leary to play for the Orediggers.
“Danee is a great signing for us,” DePell says. “She not only is an excellent athlete, but is also very skilled with the ball. She can shoot it from three, has no fear driving to the basket and has a natural feel for the game. She’s extremely competitive and isn’t afraid of hard work.”
Murphy, who coached the Orediggers in between two stints as head coach of the Maroons, echoes DePell.
“She’s a great player,” Murphy says of Leary. “If I was a college coach, I’d take her in a heartbeat.”
Murphy and Leary both say the BC player got a ton of her competitive fire from her mother, Billyjo (Jovanovich) Thompson, who was known for her hard-nosed defense and rebounding while playing for the Anaconda Copperheads in the early 1990s.
“That’s BillyJo in her,” Murphy says with a laugh. “She was mean, just mean.”
“She was strong, tough down low,” Leary says of her mother’s basketball career. “I try to be as aggressive as I can.”
Leary, whose aunt Julie (Leary) Nadeau led the Maroons in a win over Butte High in the fall of 1987, says her “mean streak” is isolated to the court.
“I don’t like to lose,” she explains. ” I’m totally zoned in during the game.”
Leary averaged 10.5 points for the Maroons in the regular season last year.
This year, the Maroons, who lost Brynne Kambich and Kacie McKeon to graduation, are counting on even more from Leary as they open the 2012-13 season Friday at Saturday at the Butte Central Tip-Off Tournament in Butte.
“We force her to do a lot of different things,” Murphy says.
Leary was also BC’s do-it-all player in volleyball, leading the Maroons with 263 kills and 231 digs during the regular season.
She ranked second in the Southwestern A in digs and fourth in the league in digs. She earned first-team All-State honors to help the Maroons qualify for the Class A State tournament for the first time in school history.
“I played right side last year and I played outside this year,” Leary says, trying to explain the rare combination of kills and digs. “I played back row this year, too.”
Through it all, though, Leary sees herself as a basketball player. She puts in long hours in the offseason to improve her game.
“She just works hard,” Murphy said. “She flat goes as hard as she can go. She’s so athletic and physically strong. She’s fun to watch.”
Leary saw a ton of playing time as a bench player as a sophomore, helping the Maroons win the Class A State title. Leary started all but one game as a junior — she missed a win at Hamilton because of a concussion — and the Maroons went 40-8 over the past two seasons.
Leary says she doesn’t feel extra pressure to keep up that pace of winning now that she’s a senior. Part of that, she says, is because she’s one of seven seniors on the BC roster. Hannah Stajcar, Alysea Pica, Annie Ossello, Danika Neumann, Aleesha LaBreche and Mariah Cooney are the others.
“We have all have different rolls, and we all lead in different ways,” Leary says. “I think if we all work together as a team, we’ll be successful.
“It’s different than last year. We lost some height, but we’re going to be quick, and we’ve got a lot of shooters.”
At Tech, Leary will get to live a dream come true. Since she was little she wanted to play college basketball. She’ll study accounting or chemistry to eventually go into pharmacy school.
She’ll also give the Orediggers a pretty shot and a whole lot of defense.
“She is a wonderful fit for our program and our school,” DePell says. “I couldn’t be more excited for her to come to Montana Tech next season.”