BUTTE — “You’re going to face adversity — once, twice, three times … How you handle adversity is going to determine if you win or lose.”
Cary Finberg shared these words with his team before the state championship basketball game, words that a wise coach would say but also ones that an anxious father would pass along to his kids, preparing them for things to come.
Within three minutes of tipoff, the words proved prophetic. The red-hot, run-and-gun Hardin Bulldogs, riding a 20-game win streak with a 22-1 record, immediately stunned the Columbia Falls Wildkats. Hardin was overwhelming and jumped out to an 8-0 lead, the biggest deficit to start a game that the Kats had suffered all season.
The large crowd of orange-clad Hardin fans rose to its feet in raucous celebration, echoing throughout the Butte Civic Center as Finberg called timeout and tried to regroup his girls.
In Columbia Falls, family and basketball are inextricably tied. Generations of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, have worn the familiar colors and represented the blue-collar town. A prime example, Finberg is a former all-state Wildcat who, as a senior in high school, watched the Kats win their last state championship in the fall of 1983 and was now coaching his daughter and a group of her close friends, teammates for most of their lives, in their final game. The close ties extended to the assistant coaching staff of former players, parents and family members.
The community as a whole largely embodies this tight-knit identity, and the high school sports teams, especially basketball, consistently draw some of the biggest and best crowds in Montana. C-Town sticks together.
And for all the success — and there has been plenty over the years — this town has a familiar relationship with adversity.
At the crossroads of this 30-second timeout on March 4, in the biggest basketball game of the season, Columbia Falls responded.
“We used what we have in our heart,” senior Kiara Burlage said.
“We came together and we knew what we wanted, and we went out and got it,” senior Peyton Kehr said.
With steely resolve and poise, the girls left nothing to daydream about. They shattered Hardin’s distinguished full-court press. They shot confidently, and their shots were true. Their defense was suffocating.
A sea of blue cascaded throughout the stadium as a sense of excitement collided with history. In the end, Columbia Falls captured the girls’ basketball title that had eluded the town for 34 years.
The well-rounded Wildkats defeated Hardin 73-50 and hoisted the Class A championship trophy at center court, surrounded by family, friends and community members. The historic season concluded with a 23-1 record and marked the fourth year in a row that the Kats brought home hardware. Last year’s squad placed second, and the previous two years the Wildkats earned third.
“Unbelievable,” Finberg said afterward as emotions welled up in his eyes. “This group worked so hard and this is their reward. They deserve this.”
Kehr scored a team-high 22 points and was named the tournament MVP. Burlage scored 19 points and made the all-tournament first team, and junior Dani Douglas added 16 points, earning second team all-tournament honors. Senior Cydney Finberg, Cary’s daughter, scored nine points and senior Sydney Hovde had four, picking up second-team all tournament honors. Senior Haylie Peacock added two. Sophomore Trista Cowan scored one point.
“We worked for this all four years and we finally got it,” Cydney Finberg said.
Hardin pushed Columbia Falls to the limit, shooting six-for-six from the three-point line in the first half and pressured the Wildkat offense every step of the way.
“They just got in their stride and they were getting up and down the court just as well as we were,” Hardin head coach Cindy Farmer said.
“They’re a great team … They’re big and they can shoot. For as big as they are, they can get up and down the court. And they shot very well tonight.”
Columbia Falls’ experience in big games proved beneficial. Six of the team’s players were members of the undefeated state championship volleyball team.
“We have the leadership. We have the experience. We’ve been in Saturday night games for four years in a row now,” Burlage said.
The post-game celebration resembled a family reunion. For many of these players, this was the exciting culmination of a journey that began many years ago with this dream in mind.
“They’re all kind of part of your family after awhile,” Cary Finberg said. “This group was a special group and tonight proved that.”