The Columbia Falls boys basketball team heads to the Metra Park in Billings this week for the state Class A tournament.
The boys dropped the Frenchtown Broncs in the Northwest Class A tournament 64-54 to win their fifth-straight conference title. They’ll open the state tournament against the Laurel Locomotives at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.
Laurel (20-2) had the best Class A record in the state this season, with just two losses — one of them to top-ranked Class AA Billings Skyview in double overtime, 56-46, in the last game of the year.
Prior to that, Laurel had a perfect record. In the Eastern Class A divisional tourney, the Locomotives lost to Billings Central in the championship game in a low-scoring affair, 36-34. But they made it to the state tournament by beating Glendive 41-39.
Laurel has four seniors in their starting lineup and are led by senior guard-forward Brett Thompson.
The Locomotives had a knack for pulling out games in the final seconds throughout the year. The Wildcats will have to break that spell at state with some magic of their own.
The Cats were 17-5 on the season and will look to senior Luke Kazlauskas to set the pace for the squad. Kazlauskas averages 15 points a game to lead the Cats in scoring.
Senior point guard Alex Presnell and junior forward Jared Trinastich each average about 11 points a game. But it’s the Columbia Falls bench that has been a difference maker down the stretch.
The Cats will need help from Ty Morgan, Nakia Alexander and Trevor Houston as they look to advance in the state tournament. Last year, it was Kazlauskas who came off the bench to spark the Cats in the state tournament. Presnell and Trinastich also played on the big stage, so this year will be nothing new to them.
Coach Cary Finberg said he expects the Locomotives to be a challenge.
“They’ll get after us defensively,” he said. “They’re very physical. Their strength is defense and athleticism.”
Columbia Falls has been in six state Class A championship games over the past 10 years and won four of them. Win that first game and anything can happen.
“We’re playing pretty good basketball at the moment,” Finberg said. “We just have to handle what they throw at us.”
Last year, the Cats made it to the final, but lost to Dillon, 54-39. Their last state title was in 2011 when they beat Dillon, 55-43.
State A boys' basketball preview: No clear favorite to bring home top hardware
The only safe analysis to make about the State A boys’ basketball tournament in Billings starting Thursday is this: It’s anybody’s ballgame.
“You look across the State A board there and you find the top five teams have been there all year,” Frenchtown head coach Michael Botsford said.
Laurel, which sat atop the final Class A rankings on Feb. 21, lost in overtime to Billings Central in the Eastern A divisional championship. The Locomotives edged Glendive, 41-39, in the challenge game to sneak into the state tournament.
Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg, who faces the Locomotives (19-2) in the first round at 12:30 p.m., still knows how dangerous Laurel is.
“Laurel started the season 17-0. They’re a very good team, I put them as one of the favorites,”Finberg said. “We’re where we want to be. We’ll focus on Laurel and see what happens from there.”
Columbia Falls deserves to be mentioned as a favorite in its own right.
The Wildcats clinched a tourney berth for the seventh straight season, were last year’s runner-up and won it all in 2011.
The Wildcats were ranked fourth in the final prep poll and finished the season 15-5. Senior guard Luke Kazlauskas paced the Cats with 15.2 points per game, good for third in the Northwestern A.
“When their team goals are more important than individual, they put themselves in that spot to be successful. Over a period of time winning becomes a habit,” Finberg said. “Right now our kids expect to win when they walk out there.”
Also out of the Northwestern A is Frenchtown. Coming in with a 10-10 record, the Broncs fit the bill as the tournament’s underdog. They do, however, boast the Northwestern A’s leading scorer, John Chapman (18.4 ppg).
It is Frenchtown’s first state appearance since 2006 when it lost in the championship to Columbia Falls.
“We’ve been slowly trying to build things up,” coach Botsford said. “We’ve been preaching that, as far as changing the culture and not accepting – you can lose, that’s going to happen, you can’t win every game – but are we going to get better from it or are we going to say ‘that’s what’s expected of us.’”
The Broncs four seniors will face an even more experienced Billings Central team; the Rams (14-6) have eight seniors.
“They are going to be a definite load,” Botsford said. “They have the top scorer in the state in (Daniel Meyer), a 6-foot-9 post. They’re all seniors and it’s the team that took third last year at state so they’ve been there, done that. I don’t think there is going to be much to rattle.”
Then there’s Stevensville and Browning, who bring identical 17-3 records into the 2 p.m. contest.
The Yellowjackets finished No. 2 in the Class A poll; the Indians third. Jackets coach Keith Chambers knows they face potentially their fiercest opponent in the first round.
“Right now we have Browning in front of us so that’s who we’re concentrating on,” Chambers said. “They like to pressure and it’s a typical Browning (style of play). They get a lot of shots up and then they come up with a lot of full-court pressure on a make and they have half-court pressure on a miss.”
Stevensville could be a handful for Browning, however. Jared Schultz, Jesse Sims and Zak Gavlak each average just over 12 points per game and Kadin Beller averages double-figures at 10.8 ppg.
“We don’t have anyone that is going to go to the state tournament and just carry us through, but collectively I think we’re a pretty tough out,” Chambers said. “I don’t feel it’s a one-man show. I think we can create a lot of mismatches for other teams.”
Butte Central (14-7) and Belgrade (13-7) round out the opening day at 8 p.m.