BIGFORK – It’s no secret in Northwest A girls basketball – Bigfork is the team to beat.
Coming off a 20-4 season, the Bigfork Valkyries return five seniors, led by Alyssa Fierro. Fierro, a 6-foot-2-inch post, earned all-state last year after leading the Vals to an 11-1 regular season conference record, a divisional tournament championship and the consolation game of the state tournament, in which Bigfork lost to Livingston 54-53.
Though the Vals led the conference in scoring last year, their game plan revolves around defense, which starts with Fierro, head coach Nate Hammond said. Hammond reeled off a stat as evidence of the Fierro factor: Last season, conference opponents scored about 40 percent of their baskets inside of 10 feet from the hoop. By comparison, Bigfork scored nearly 80 percent of their buckets inside of 10 feet. What this means is when Bigfork is on defense the opponent does everything it can to keep the ball away from Fierro; when Bigfork is on offense, the Vals do their best to get the ball to her down low.
“Alyssa’s big and she’s a good athlete,” Hammond said. “She’s definitely a factor defensively.”
Fierro had 66 blocks two years ago and 51 last season, including a school record six in one game. The 66 blocks are a school record and a Class A record, according to the Montana High School Association.
But any good team has more than one big-time player. Helping Fierro down low are Jaylee Haveman at 5 feet 10 inches and Fierro’s younger sister Kaylee who, at 6-feet tall will see some varsity action as a sophomore. Senior Hattie Bowen, a returning all-conference selection, works the wing along with fellow senior Charlene Miller. And up top at the point, Avery Vogel holds it all together. The versatile Vogel plays like point guards should: She dribbles with her eyes up, she penetrates the lane with either hand and she finds open shooters no matter where they are on the court. She led the conference in assists last year.
Hammond said Northwest A is stronger this year, adding that “it’s always tough to get out of our division.” During practice Hammond emphasizes that last year’s record is a moot point – if the Vals want to be a state-caliber team this season, they still have a long way to go.
“You’re not better the next year just because you’re older,” Hammond said. “We know what it takes to play well. We can feel ourselves not being good enough yet.”
Columbia Falls is in a rebuilding year after finishing second in Northwest A. The Lady Cats lost their five main players from last year and have a new head coach in Dan Fairbank. Fairbank, who was the Wildcats’ head coach from 1996-1999, said he has been shuffling girls around from position to position, tweaking and adjusting on the fly as the season approaches.
“The only team (in the conference) that doesn’t return the majority of their starters is the Columbia Falls Wildcats,” Fairbank said. “We’re going to have to expect a lot from kids who don’t have much varsity experience to step up and play at the varsity level.”
Fairbank said he has been focusing on the fundamentals: ball handling, shooting, blocking out. The girls are learning a whole new offensive set, a different defensive scheme and the rest of the package: in-bounds plays, full-court presses and more. Alyssa and Sam Ladenburg, who are cousins, bring valuable varsity experience to the Wildcats. Alyssa, a junior guard, and Sam, a senior post, played the most varsity minutes last year, while three others on this year’s roster also have some varsity experience. Kelsey DeWitt, a 6-foot sophomore, brings size to the middle, Fairbank said.
“It’s nice to get back into it and it’s nice to have a challenge like (this season),” Fairbank said. “We’ll see how the season plays out.”
At Whitefish High School, Lady Bulldogs’ star guard Ashley Ferda recently announced her decision to play basketball at the University of Montana after high school. Before that, though, she has her senior season.
“Ashley is excited about going to the University of Montana next year,” said head coach Tim Olson, “but she’s more excited right now to take care of some business at Whitefish High.”
That’s good for the Lady Bulldogs, who enter the 2007-2008 season with a team capable of contending for the conference title. After finishing 7-11 (6-6) in the regular season, the Lady Bulldogs have five other players beside Ferda with varsity experience, including four seniors. But Olson said the formula for winning this year has to involve two or three other players in the regular rotation, especially considering the Bulldogs’ fast-paced, high-scoring game plan.
“We want to force turnovers in the full court and play some up-tempo basketball that will hopefully convert to some easy lay-ups on the other end,” Olson said. “It will be very fan-friendly – we’ll be worth coming to watch with that style.”
The 5-foot-6-inch Ferda, who Fairbank calls “one of the best, if not the best, player in the conference,” is a major catalyst of Whitefish’s fastbreak game plan, coming off a season when she led the conference in scoring last year at 17.5 points per game. Seniors Chelsea Ray and Desiree Clark bring additional ball-handling skills and experience to the Bulldogs, while 5-foot-10-inch post Dana Labuda will anchor the blocks down low.
Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Whitefish all kick off their seasons at the Whitefish/Columbia Falls Tip-off Tourney on Dec. 7 and 8.
Related: Class AA Girls Basketball Preview
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