With most of the league’s big names returning and a bumper crop of young stars emerging, coaches think Northwest A is as good this season as it’s been in years.
Columbia Falls is always a force to be reckoned with under the guidance of head coach Cary Finberg. The Wildcats have won three out of the last five state championships, taking the title in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Last year after dominating the regular season and finishing with a 14-4 (11-1) record, the Wildcats were upset by Libby at divisionals and missed the state tournament. But with two all-state guards returning, Finberg has good reason to once again feel confident about his team’s chances in Northwest A this year.
Finberg said success for his squad starts with his two star guards: seniors Chase Grilley and Chase Fairbank.
“We’ll get leadership out of them,” Finberg said. “With your guards, that’s a good place to have your leadership.”
The Wildcats have traditionally relied on speed and tenacity, Finberg said, since they rarely put a tall team on the court. This year is no different. Columbia Falls has a couple guys at 6-feet-2-inches or taller, Finberg said, but that doesn’t rank as big in Class A terms.
“We’re not huge, but we’re quick,” Finberg said. “We’re used to being small and scrappy.”
Finberg thinks this year’s Northwest A conference schedule is the toughest he’s seen in at least three or four years. Just down the road at Whitefish High School, the Bulldogs’ first-year head coach Eric Stang agrees, saying from top to bottom the conference has contenders.
“Nobody is the lead horse right now,” Stang said. “It’s anybody’s league.”
Nevertheless, Whitefish must be considered one of the lead horses. The defending conference champions are returning seven varsity players, including three starters, from a team that lost out to Butte Central 48-41 at last year’s state tournament. All-state guard/forward Colt Idol is among the key returning players, as is Aaron Tkachyk, both of whom are juniors.
Stang, who was Eureka’s head coach last year when that school was still in Northwest A, said he plans to use Idol at every position on the floor. The 6-foot-2-inch sharpshooter finished second in the conference last year in scoring at 17.5 per game and was also among the league leaders in every shooting category. He pulled down six rebounds a game too.
“He’s 6-2 and can jump out of the gym,” Stang said of Idol.
But Stang was quick to point out that most teams in the conference have a couple of standout players. The key to rising to the top, he said, is how well the role players do. He said if he doesn’t get steady contributions from his young players, it will be hard to compete with the best. Right now, though, Stang is focused on helping his players adjust to a new coach and a new system.
“I’m looking forward to this season,” he said.
Bigfork head coach Jim Epperly, taking into account last year’s 0-19 season, said he understands his team is probably expected to finish last in the conference. But he’s quick to remind detractors that the Vikings lost half a dozen games by six points or less, dropped a couple in overtime and a few more late in the fourth quarter. Also, Epperly said, Bigfork was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, team in the conference last year. The boys will be bigger and better this season.
“I definitely don’t think we’re a team you can just show up and beat,” Epperly said. “We’ll get some wins this year.”
Senior guard Roland Benedict, voted second team all-conference last year, will anchor Bigfork’s offense. Epperly said Benedict is “quick and he’s got good speed,” qualities he expects from other players on his undersized team.
“He’s fun to watch,” Epperly said of Benedict.
Epperly hopes some of his younger kids will emerge, including Ben Sandry, a freshman point guard. Bigfork also has a strong junior class, Epperly said. He said the most important step this year is getting that first win out of the way, and then the rest will fall into place as the team learns how to win more consistently.
“If we get a few wins here and there,” Epperly said, “that will do a lot for the kids’ confidence. The biggest factor is confidence.”
Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Bigfork all kick off their seasons at the Whitefish/Columbia Falls Tip-off Tourney on Dec. 7 and 8.
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