There’s nothing like a last-second, game-winning free throw in triple overtime to uncork the excitement of a new basketball season.
High school hoops season is here, and if the first few games are any indication, the Flathead Valley is in store for a rip-roaring winter on the hardwood.
The Flathead Braves have provided the early fireworks, winning four of their first five games, including back-to-back nail-biters. Against Whitefish in the season opener, the Braves trailed nearly the entire game before rallying back in the final minutes to win 52-51. In the next game against Great Falls C.M. Russell, Eric Seaman hit the game-winning free throw to secure a 70-69 victory for the Braves in the third overtime. Last weekend, three players scored in triple digits to lead Flathead past Columbia Falls 55-45.
“I’m really excited for this team. We have a lot of potential,” second-year head coach Ross Gustafson said. “We’ve shown a lot of mental toughness early on to gut out some close wins. I think that says a lot about their character and confidence they play with.”
Excitement and potential are two words that most define the new season in the Flathead Valley.
Here’s a breakdown of the individual teams and divisions.
The East holds the crown with Billings Skyview returning as the defending boys state champ and Bozeman the reigning runner-up.
The West is wide open. Glacier boasts one of the best players in Montana in senior Jaxen Hashley, a senior post. Hashley scored 17 points against Polson recently and 15 against Great Falls C.M. Russell. Head coach Mark Harkins also has Tadan Gilman back as a standout senior leader. Gilman had 18 against CMR.
The Wolfpack finished 7-15 overall a year ago and missed out on the state tournament.
Flathead is also eager to return to the state tournament with returning standouts Bridger Johnson, Tyler Johnson and Sam Elliott. Flathead was 7-14 a year ago.
For girls, Bozeman is the reigning champ.
Two new head coaches will be on the sidelines for the Flathead and Glacier girls programs this winter.
Bill Sullivan, a longtime educator in Kalispell and former high school football and basketball coach, has taken over the Glacier squad from Kris Salonen, who retired after last season after 6 ½ years as head coach. The team finished 12-9 overall last season and missed out on the state tournament.
The Pack graduated several starters, including Hailee Bennett and Taylor Salonen, but Sullivan has a dominating duo in the key this season in senior Nikki Krueger and sophomore Kali Gulick. Both girls stand over 6-feet tall and have already showed their prowess down low. Krueger scored 16 against Polson and 15 against Great Falls. Anna Schrade, a junior, has excelled as a starter as well, averaging 7 points per game and nearly 4 rebounds. Anna Kreitinger, a senior, is also stepping into a leadership role.
So far, Glacier is 1-2 overall with losses to Great Falls C.M. Russell, 49-41, and Great Falls, 49-36. The Pack defeated Polson 52-23. The team travels to play Butte on Wednesday and Bozeman on Thursday before taking a break until January.
At Flathead, Tricia Dean-Samson is leading the Bravettes as the new head coach. Samson-Dean replaces Lisa Hendrickson, who resigned in March after three seasons. The Bravettes were 4-17 overall last season and 11-52 the last three years. Samson-Dean is the sister of Flathead Braves head football coach Kyle Samson and graduated high school in Havre in 2008.
Samson-Dean is trying to lead the Bravettes back to the state tournament for the first time since 2013.
She has one of the best players in Montana in Tiana Johnson, a senior who committed to play at Sacramento State University after graduating. Johnson, a 6-foot-1 wing, averaged 14 points and six rebounds a game last season as a junior. She was Flathead’s leading scorer in all but two of the team’s 21 games and scored a season-high 23 points against Helena. This season she is once again leading the Bravettes’ scoring attack, averaging 19 points per game with 8.3 rebounds. She scored 25 against Great Falls as Flathead won 47-45. Last weekend she scored 28 against Columbia Falls, but the Bravettes fell 57-42.
Flathead has other standout seniors in Kelsey Gillespie, who is averaging 10.7 points and 2 rebounds, and Kylee Meredith, who is averaging 5 points and nearly 4 rebounds. Junior Mary Heaton is averaging 7.7 points and 4 rebounds.
The Bravettes are 3-2 overall and play at Bozeman on Wednesday and at Butte on Thursday before taking a break until January.
From a dominating volleyball season that ended in perfection and championship glory, the Columbia Falls girls are rolling into the basketball season with great expectations.
The Wildkats went 21-3 a year ago and lost narrowly in the Class A state title game to Butte Central 54-48. The Kats are back, loaded with talent and experience as well as a new familiar face. Dani Douglas, a junior who was second team all-conference a year ago in Whitefish, has transferred to Columbia Falls and is now the team’s point guard. She joins a roster of remarkable players, including all-state senior forward Kiara Burlage and all-state senior guards Cydney Finberg and Peyton Kehr.
The Wildkats are 5-0 after defeating Class AA Flathead 57-42 last weekend in Kalispell. Burlage led with 17 points, followed by Douglas and Kehr, who both added 11.
Last year’s team finished in the top three at state for the third year in a row and brought home a second-place trophy for the first time since 1986. Head coach Cary Finberg is hoping to lead this crew of ladies to the program’s first state championship since 1983.
Whitefish head coach Ben Johnson has a young team looking for leaders to emerge. The Lady Bulldogs went 7-14 a year ago and are 0-4 so far.
Polson similarly would like to return to the state tournament a year after finishing 7-14. Head coach Joe Quinn lost four starters from a year ago and will look for leadership to emerge. The Lady Pirates are 0-5 so far.
Frenchtown is 4-1 overall so far with four returning starters, led by Shannon Worster, a senior guard.
On the boys side, Polson is the favorite in Northwestern A but is off to a slow start at 1-4. Head coach Randy Kelley has talented returning players, including Tanner Wilson and Matthew Rensvold. The Pirates went 19-6 a year ago and placed third at the state tournament. Polson would like to bring home state hardware again but will have to overcome the talents in Dillon, last year’s state runner-up, and Billings Central, the defending state champ.
Columbia Falls has a new head coach in Chris Finberg, who replaced John Anderson after one season. Finberg, a former star athlete in Columbia Falls and the nephew of former boys head coach Cary Finberg, is trying to rebuild a state powerhouse but has depth issues on a depleted roster. He does have leadership in seniors Dakota Bridwell and Logan Stephens.
“We need to be grinders. We need to try to keep the score in the 40s and hang our hat on the defensive end,” Finberg said.
The Wildcats are 1-4 overall. Frenchtown, led by senior forward Austin Means, is 3-2 overall and a top state contender.
Whitefish is returning two starters from a year ago, when the Bulldogs went 7-14 overall. Sean Duff has taken over as head coach, replacing Curtis Green. Duff previously served as head coach of the Whitefish girls basketball program for four seasons. Duff is hoping to lead the Bulldogs back to the state tournament for the first time in seven years. He welcomes back all-state senior Derek Kastella, who averaged 14 points per game a year ago, as well as Sawyer Silliker, a senior forward.
Bigfork graduated all but four lettermen from last year’s state runner-up squad. Sophomore standout Anders Epperly is leading the Vikings this season. Head coach Sam Tudor will look to a new group of players to emerge as leaders and keep the Vikes’ winning tradition alive.
The top contender in Western 7B could be Libby, which has two returning starters back. Ryggs Johnston, one of the top prep golfers in the nation, is leading the Loggers on the hardwood. He scored 18 against Shepherd and 15 twice, against Belt and Thompson Falls. Towering post Erik Lauer, standing 6-foot-7, also boosts Libby’s prospects.
On the girls side, Bigfork welcomes back one starter, Jaime Berg, but several other talented players, including Haile Norred and Abby Ellison. The Valkyries went 18-8 a year ago and qualified for the Class B state tournament.
The biggest Western B challengers appear to be Libby and Eureka. Both squads welcome back four starters apiece. Libby’s new but familiar head coach, Wally Winslow, has a talented Lady Loggers squad led by Shannon Reny and Jayden Winslow. Winslow, the former longtime boys basketball coach in Libby, has taken over the girls program from Jim May, who stepped down after 20 years. May had a 253-190 record with eight state tournament appearances.