Head coach: Cary Finberg
Overall Record: 17-4
How they qualified for state: Defeated Polson in Central Divisional challenge game, 48-38.
Roster: SENIORS — Hope Buriage, Shanon Hay, Kathrin Jetty, Tori Price, JUNIORS — Haley Belgarde, Andrea Getts; SOPHOMORES — Summer Burlage, Morgan Christianson, Ciera Finberg, Kaitlyn Horner, Winter Kemppainen, Kaity Presnell, FRESHMEN — Ally Gimbel, Ellie Johnson, Miranda Livingston.
Starters: Haley Belgarde, Hope Burlage, Winter Kemppainen, Ciera Finberg, Tori Price.
Outlook: The state finals welcomes the Columbia Falls girls to the Butte Civic Center and they will open up play against the defending champion, Billings Central squad in the first game of the tournament, 12:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Coach Finberg has a big, deep team that will have to overcome inconsistent perimeter shooting to make a serious big trophy run.
Of course, having been ranked No. 1 at different points of the season clearly shows their potential to win the whole thing.
“I like the way we are playing at the moment,” Finberg said. “I am just worried about our first matchup.”
He has Belgarde (16 ppg, 11 rpg), Kemppainen (9 ppg, 9 rpg) and Burlage (9 ppg, 7 rpg), to attack the boards and get points where they can get them in their high/low offense.
They will work in some 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone looks, along with a half-court trap.
Head coach: Jim Tolman
Overall Record: 16-4
How they qualified for state: Won Central Divisional Title over Columbia Falls, 49-37
Roster: SENIORS — Larissa Berg, Abby Indreland, Holly Jacobs, Kenzie Reid; JUNIORS — Kayla Blood, Vanessa Stavish, Shaela Wallen, Keegan Wickman; SOPHOMORES — Haley Cyr,Shelby Fromm, Lacey Hochhalter, Emma Pryon, Linsey Shepard; FRESHMEN — Alli Moe, Brooke Yarnall.
Starters: Abby Indreland, Holly Jacobs, Larissa Berg, Kayla Blood and Vanessa Stavish.
Outlook: A year ago, Frenchtown rolled into Butte and got beat by the Maroons 51-36 in the quarterfinals and would be headed home one loss later.
That doesn’t mean that this year’s edition isn’t a team to reckon with as Laurel beckons on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
“Our strengths are our depth and athleticism,” coach Tolman said. “We can go big or quick, and the girls play hard getting after it on both ends of the floor. Our weaknesses stem from impatience on the offensive end making that transition from intense, pressure defense to controlling and working the ball and moving the defense the situation dictates.”
Stavish is averaging 17.5 ppg and 8.9 rpg and may be one of the top two or three players in the field. She gets plenty of help from Berg (8.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), and Jacobs (7.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
“The field is relatively even from all accounts and is wide open to the teams who are playing well,” Tolman said. “We had a good divisional and beat a quality team for the title. Hopefully that momentum will carry over to state and give us an opportunity to play Saturday night.”
That momentum would have to start with a win over a Laurel team they are not too familiar with.
“We know very little about Laurel, or most of the teams from the other side of the state at this time,” Tolman said. “We expect we will be facing a quality opponent who won some big games including the challenge against Hardin.”
Frenchtown runs multiple sets on the offensive end and can score from point-blank range and from beyond the arc.
They will pressure the ball and push their turnovers into transition points.
BROWNING LADY INDIANS
Head coach: Ray Augare
Overall Record: 11-10
How they qualified for state: Defeated Livingston in Central Divisional challenge game, 62-36.
Roster: SENIORS — Ashley Burd, Brooke Carlson, Marti EagleFeathers, Mariah Ingraham, Jessica Magee, Brittany Wolf Trail; JUNIORS — Treyanna Belcourt, Rachel Heptner, Courtney Little Dog, Shelsey St. Goddard, Cyndi Sharp, FRESHMAN — Tiara Gilham.
Starters: Rachel Heptner, Ashley Burd, Tiara Gilham, Courtney Little Dog, and Marti Eagle Feathers.
Outlook: Browning has made it back to state after a few years away from the fray. Coach Augare believes his team’s overall teamwork is their key strength.
“We are just as capable to win as any other team there,” Augare said. “It will come down to the team that continues to play well.”
Teamwork and “resilience for the game” are two areas that have the Browning coach feeling positive about his team’s ability to make things happen in this year’s finals, including their quarterfinal opener against the Maroons.
Yes, they may have played Butte Central in the opening tip-off tournament and got handed a big defeat, but that was three months ago…now Browning is “familiar” with the Maroons.
Be ready to watch an up-tempo style of play on offense and multiple defensive looks.
HAVRE BLUE PONIES
Head coach: Dustin Kraske
Overall Record: 13-7
How they qualified for state: Won Northwest Divisional Title over Browning, 69-42
Roster: SENIOR — Neya Bischoff; JUNIORS — Breck Don, Peyton Filius, Brandy Lambourne, Haley Ohm, Lacey Wald; SOPHOMORES — Harlee Boucher, Lindsay Kudma, Rachel Majeres, Morgan Mazurkiewicz, Tori Mazurkiewicz; FRESHMAN — Dani Wagner.
Starters: Brandy Lambourne, Peyton Filius, Morgan Mazurkiewicz, Lacey Waid and Neya Bischoff
Outlook: Havre will descend from the north coming off of an impressive 27-point divisional final win over Browning and now face Stevensville in the final quarterfinal on Thursday night, 8 p.m.
“We are pleased with how well our kids play together,” Kraske said. “They work hard and share the basketball. Our goal is to play better each game by focusing on doing the little things better; such as valuing the ball, taking good shots, rebounding, and playing together. We are concerned more on improvement than winning and losing.”
Havre will be battling a YellowJackets team that rolls in to the field with a bit of momentum.
“Stevensville is a very good team,” Kraske said. “We are impressed with how well each player plays their role on their team. I am looking forward to a great game.”
Kraske will run his offenses and defenses based on each individual matchup.
“Regardless of what we do, we are focusing on playing together as a team,” he said.
That could be a key as they take on a Stevi squad coming off a big win and with a Division I signee in Alycia Sims in the mix.
Havre is a divisional champion so they will have plenty of momentum.
BILLINGS CENTRAL RAMS
Head coach: Jeff Malby
How they qualified for state: Won Eastern Divisional Title over Hardin, 69-56
Roster: SENIOR — Sammy Elliott; JUNIORS — Baylee Hadley, Justyn Juhl; Melissa Koerber, Erika Kuehn, Allie Lucas; SOPHOMORES — Sarina Aamold, Skylar Rockwell, Allison Walter; FRESHMEN — Morgan Lucas, Natalie Ruegsegger, Mariah Wittman.
Starters: Allie Lucas, Sammy Elliott, Erika Kuehn, Justyn Juhl and Melissa Koerber
Outlook: Five of last year’s state field returns, including the Billings Central program that won it all in a 46-36 title game decision over Butte Central at the Civic Center.
This year they enter the field with a 14-7 mark and a strong divisional run.
“We have been to the state tourney four years in a row, so we have some experience,” coach Malby said. “I think any team has a chance to win this thing; us being one of them.”
Billings Central calls its defense their calling card while they tend not to close the deal well enough on the boards.
That also may be attributed to them having only one senior, so youth has dominated this year’s roster.
Yet, that won’t keep them from mixing up their defenses and offensive looks.
They open up their tournament journey with the first game of the tournament, against Columbia Falls at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday.
“C-Falls is big; physical and play good defense,” Malby said.
“They are very solid offensively.”
BUTTE CENTRAL MAROONS
You don’t become a continual threat for a state title by having a team of one player.
So, despite the Butte Central Maroons entering the 2013 state finals without arguably their best player, Danee Leary, these girls have been through adversity before and have survived it.
Central opens tournament play starting Thursday at the Butte Civic Center at 2 p.m. against the Browning Lady Indians (11-10)
Leary, who will miss the state tournament after suffering a concussion in the Southwestern A Divisional final against Hamilton, was out earlier this year with a hamstring injury and the Maroons (16-4) went 2-0 in her absence.
“Danee is certainly a leader and I feel our kids really stepped up defensively when she was out and began to play as a team,” Central head coach Meg Murphy said.
It doesn’t hurt that the Maroons played well as they rolled to the divisional title last weekend at the Maroon Activities Center.
“I feel very good about the way we played,” Murphy said. “I thought we played with high energy and were very focused. I felt our defense was tough and relentless as we had very few breakdowns. I felt we did a lot of good things, passed the ball well rebounded and kept our composure.”
A key to winning a state tournament by taking three victories in three days will be guard play. The Maroons’ play at the point will have to step up as pressure has unnerved them at times.
“I can’t tell you how very important it will be,” Murphy said of the need for solid guard play. “The teams on our side of the bracket will apply an immense amount of pressure and we will need to handle the ball and get some good looks. Alysea Pica is key as is Danika Neumann and Hannah Stajcar in controlling the game. They will all have to have great games if we are to have a shot to win it all.”
A factor in the team’s ability to play well, especially without Leary, is those two wins they had without their senior wing.
“Danee is a huge part of our team but we realize she is out and everyone will have to step up a little more, but we should be able to pull it off,” Central senior Annie Ossello said. “It helped to play those two games since it gave us the confidence that we can still play without her in there.”
What also must come up big for the Maroons will be the play of their bench players. The substitutes came up big against Hamilton in the SW A final and in the tense semifinal win over Anaconda.
“I felt our bench gave us good minutes when we needed them,” Murphy said. “Hjelt, a freshman, I thought gave us huge minutes. It will be very important in the state tournament that the bench continues to give us those minutes. Jitters could play a part with young kids, but hopefully they will perform well.”
The way Central performed in those two wins at divisionals only boosted the team’s confidence.
“It gave us a lot of confidence so I think we’ll do good at state,” Maroon senior Danika Neumann said. “They were bigger games, and we had to do better to win. We were relaxed and confident.”
They will get an early start as Browning should bring the fullcourt heat. The two teams met in the tip-off tournament at the Civic Center in early December, with the Maroons winning big.
“Well, starting off with Browning is no easy match-up, but at this point no team is an easy match-up,” Murphy said. “We are familiar with their style of play coming from the Central A conference, and we know they like to run, press and zone with traps. They are a quality team that are well coached and a coach that has taken many Browning boys teams to the state tourney many times.
“I expect this to be a fast-paced game and one we hope to control the tempo. They have some good players, one being Marti Eaglefeathers and another in Tiara Gilham. They are very dangerous players.”
Murphy believes the tournament is wide open with all eight teams having a legitimate shot at winning the top prize.
“We need to play to our abilities and have the ball bounce the right way,” Murphy said.
If they hope to win the title that eluded them in a 46-36 final game defeat in 2012 against Billings Central, the Maroons will have to avoid errors under pressure, make their free throws, and overcome the loss of Leary.
Either way, it promises to be a great weekend of hoops for everyone in attendance.
“This should be a great tournament for fans with very quality teams,” Murphy said. “It is wide open, and I feel we have as good a chance as the next.”
The players are well aware of what they will be up against.
“We match up with the other teams pretty well, but we know Billings Central is a good team and have gotten better from the opening game,” Neumann said. “Browning will also be a lot tougher.”
With seven seniors on the roster and last year’s near miss on the brains, will Central stand for anything less than a state title? After such a successful run, Ossello has that answer.
“We have seven seniors who would like to go out with a state title,” Ossello said. “So, yes, I would say we are going in there expecting to win it.”
Western teams have hot hands at the right time
The Northwestern A and Southwestern A girls’ basketball teams have found their stride, and just at the right time.
With the State A girls’ basketball tournament beginning Thursday in Butte, the four teams from the western side of the state have been racking up consecutive wins.
Frenchtown has won 15 of 16 games, including eight straight to close out the season. The streak came after a slow 2-3 start.
“It takes a while to figure out how we want to play and it takes a while to find our identity,” 12th-year Broncs coach Jim Tolman said before the divisional tournament. “It’s been a work in progress and a process all year long.”
The Broncs (16-4) are led by junior Vanessa Stavish, who is the leading scorer in the Northwestern A. Stavish scored 18 points in the Broncs’ divisional title win against Columbia Falls.
If Frenchtown advances in its first-round game against Laurel (16-6), the Broncs will play Stevensville. The Broncs lost to the Yellowjackets in their only pairing of the season, 40-39, in the first game of the year.
Stevensville, the preseason favorite, struggled out of the gate, going 4-8 overall to start the season. The Jackets were without their second leading scorer, Kyla Paulsen, for the first four games, who was recovering from a knee injury.
University of Montana recruit Alycia Sims missed two games over that stretch with knee and ankle troubles and four girls missed time due to a diciplinary issue.
The Yellowjackets (12-9) rebounded and finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak after returning to full health.
“Once we got the girls back, we said this isn’t a bad situation now, we can win through and challenge and it obviously worked out really well for us,” ‘Jacket coach Brandon Day said.
Stevi dropped a 35-33 decision to Corvallis in the first round of the Southwestern A tournament, but was without third leading scorer Kayla Peterson in that one.
With Peterson back and the team at full strength, the Yellowjackets ripped off four straight victories, including a 48-46 challenge game win in overtime against No. 4-ranked Hamilton to claim the state berth.
“The hardest part is just getting out of the conference,” Day said. “Hamilton is just as good as any of the other teams that are going. It’s just a matter of getting there.”
Stevensville opens the tournament against Havre (13-7) at 8 p.m.
As for Butte Central, health, experience and the fact it will be playing in its hometown will all be on the side of last season’s runners-up.
The Maroons (16-4) bring a seven-senior roster to state. They closed their season on a seven-game winning streak.
“They have five solid seniors that have all been in this situation before and they have size and shooters. They’re just a solid group,” Day said.
Butte Central opens the tournament against Browning (11-10).
The only team that is not riding a win streak is the No. 1 team in Class A. The Columbia Falls girls fell to Frenchtown in the Northwestern A championship game, 49-37, and were relegated to a challenge game against Polson.
The Wildkats took care of business with a 48-38 win over the Pirates to earn a State A appearance. They had won nine straight prior to the loss against the Broncs.
“Obviously we wanted to win that game against Frenchtown, but Frenchtown played very well,” second-year Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said. “We just needed to realize that things are still possible and we need to pick ourselves up. We reached our goal of getting to state and now we need to re-evaluate.”
The Wildkats will have their hands full as they open against Billings Central (14-7), which is the defending champion and has won two of the last three State A titles.
“They’ve got the experience, obviously, going in. I would think they’re the favorites,” Finberg said. “Those kids know what it takes and we’re excited for the challenge.”
As for predictions as to who will be atop the podium when the dust settles, Finberg thinks it is up in the air.
“It just seems like every year there are a lot of good teams,” he said. “You look at March Madness and any time you are playing in a one-game situation, anything can happen.”
Central, Laurel girls on hot streaks entering State A tournament
Billings Central has won more State A girls basketball championships — six — than any other school.
If the Rams are to capture title No. 7 at this weekend’s tournament in Butte, they’ll have to stick to what’s worked for them all year.
“I think we have to continue the same formula,” said fourth-year coach Jeff Malby, who last year guided Central to its second state title in three seasons. “We’ve talked about playing our tempo and creating offense from solid defense.
“When you get into the state tournament, you have to worry more about what you do and play your game and just power through anything that’s not going your way.”
The Rams (14-7) are fresh off winning the Eastern A divisional championship with a 69-54 victory over Hardin on Saturday. It was, as Malby put it, a game that solidified the team’s confidence.
Guard Allie Lucas and forward Justyn Juhl, both juniors, combined to score 50 points in that game. Lucas — who averages just under 17 points per game — is the ringleader of the Rams’ operation on both offense and defense.
Central comes into the tourney on a six-game winning streak.
Laurel, the No. 2 seed from the Eastern division, beat Hardin in a challenge game Monday to qualify for state.
The Locomotives (16-6) are seeking their first title since 2006, and are also coming in hot: Laurel has won nine of its last 10 games entering its first-round game against Frenchtown (11-9).
The Locos are led by senior guard Jayde LeFevre, who can beat you taking the ball to the rim or shooting from the perimeter. LeFevre averages around 16 points per game.
Defensively, the Locomotives will look to neutralize Frenchtown’s Vanessa Stavish, who leads her team in scoring at 17.5 points per game.
“We feel like it’s a pretty good matchup for us,” said Laurel coach Amber Griffith. “It will boil down to executing our game plan and being good at what we do.
“We’re playing pretty good basketball right now. We feel good about where we’re at and how we’re playing.”
The Locomotives took fourth at last year’s state tournament, but made it to the championship game two seasons ago.
The Rams’ first-round opponent is Columbia Falls, the No. 2 seed from the Northwestern A. The Wildkats (17-4) were upset by Frenchtown in their divisional title game, but still qualified for state with a challenge game victory over Polson on Monday.
The Wildkats’ Haley Belgarde, at 15.3 points per game, was the second-leading scorer in the Northwest during the regular season.
The loss to Frenchtown was Columbia Falls’ only defeat to a Class A team all year. The Wildkats had won nine in a row prior to that.
“They’re very formidable,” Malby said. “They’ve got good size, they defend well, they rebound … they didn’t win that many games by accident. It’ll be a challenge.”
The other first-round matchups feature Butte Central (16-4) against Browning (11-10) and Havre (13-7) versus Stevensville (12-9).
Butte Central comes in as the champion of the Southwestern A, but the Maroons will likely be without standout Danee Leary, who suffered a concussion in the division title game against Hamilton.
The Maroons have played for the state championship in each of the past two seasons. They won it in 2011.
The most touted individual talent at the tournament will be Stevensville’s Alycia Sims.
Sims, a 6-foot-3 senior post, averages 18.8 points per game, and will play college basketball at the University of Montana. The Sims-led Yellowjackets are making their first state tournament appearance since 1998.
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Havre, Browning look for hardware
Havre's Neya Bishoff (34) looks for a teammate as Livingston's Callie Ellingson, left, and Chelsea Woods, right, defend during the Central A Basketball tournament recently at CMR Fieldhouse. TRIBUNE PHOTO/LARRY BECKNER
BUTTE — The Havre girls’ basketball team is no stranger to the Class A state tournament.
The Blue Ponies (13-7) won the Central A Divisional tournament for the second year in a row last weekend and have been to six of the past seven state tournaments.
But they are looking for a better showing than last season when they went two-and-out.
“Our kids are excited to play, naturally since we played so well last week,” Havre coach Dustin Kraske said. “We’re looking forward to a couple good days of practice and hopefully getting better heading into the tournament.”
A strong nonconference schedule has helped the Blue Ponies prepare for the postseason. Havre took on Class AA C.M. Russell High and Great Falls High as well as Class B state tourney qualifiers Conrad and Malta.
Havre’s first-round opponent at 8 p.m. tonight is Stevensville (12-9) the No. 2 team out of the Southwest A division.
Montana recruit Alycia Sims leads the Yellowjackets in scoring (18.8 per game) and rebounding (9.2). Kyla Paulsen averages 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds.
“I don’t know a lot about them, but I know the Sims girl is a nice player,” Kraske said. “She’s 6-3 and does whatever she wants. I watched her last year and we’re going to have our hands full with her.”
Peyton Filius leads Havre at 12.5 points per game and Brandy Lambourne adds 9.6. Neya Bischoff is the top rebounder for the Blue Ponies as she pulls down 6.1 per outing.
Meanwhile Browning (11-10) finished second at the divisional tournament after winning a challenge game over Livingston Monday.
“It was a little bit up and down,” Browning coach Ray Augare said of the divisional tournament. “The seniors are pretty excited about it. I believe it’s the first time any of them had even played for the divisional championship.”
The Browning players may be new to the state tournament, but Augare has plenty of experience. This is his first season coaching the girls’ team, but he coached the Browning boys for several years, including last year’s state tournament appearance.