Bigfork Girls in Familiar Territory

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – The Bigfork Valkyries’ starting lineup looks like an all-conference team.

Across the board, the Vals are tall and talented, led by a core of seniors who have played together since pre-high school days. On any given night, it would be hard to pick a player of the game.

“We play as a team and we need to keep playing well as a team,” said Alyssa Fierro, a 6-foot-2 senior and returning all-state selection. “We don’t care who gets the credit.”

The Vals, 13-1 (8-0 in conference), alternate three posts who are 5 feet 10 or taller, led by Fierro. Their guards, all at least 5 feet 7, can battle underneath the hoop or step outside and knock down three pointers: Senior Hattie Bowen and junior Roxy Thurman are both capable of putting up 20-point games. Senior Avery Vogel is as good of a Class A point guard as you’ll find anywhere in the state.

Senior Alyssa Fierro puts up a short jump shot during practice at Bigfork High School.

Coming off a 20-4 season in which they finished fourth at the state tournament, these Vals are accustomed to winning. But head coach Nate Hammond is the quintessential “we-still-have-a-lot-to-work-on” coach who understands that championships are only rooted in the regular season, but are nurtured and ultimately won in the postseason. Nevertheless, he understands the scope of his team’s accomplishments.

“We’re happy, definitely,” Hammond said.

Bigfork averages 49.9 points per game on offense, second best in Northwest A behind Whitefish. But the Vals’ success revolves around defense. They allow only 37.2 points per game, tops in the conference, averaging about 6.5 blocks per game, four more than the next closest team. Fierro is the anchor, averaging a league-best 3.5 blocks per game after leading the conference the past two years.

But Hammond points to the little mistakes that can add up – lapses in offensive execution, poor free throw shooting and a lack of consistency. In a few games this year, he said, the Vals have played great for a quarter or two but not the whole game. Missed free throws nearly cost them a couple of games.

Quindee Averill, left, stretches as Bigfork head coach Nate Hammond makes some opening observations before girls basketball practice at Bigfork High School.

“Our bad quarters just haven’t been as bad as the other teams’ bad quarters,” Hammond said. “That’s kind of kept us winning.”

The Vals live on the edge at times. Scattered between all of their blowout victories are a few tight games, close calls where free throw shooting became vital. Recently, the Vals snuck past Libby and Flathead in consecutive games, beating the Loggers 43-41 and the Braves 54-53 in a come-from-behind effort. Those close games were good for the girls, Hammond said.

“We’re not here to try to blow anybody out,” he said. “(A close game) is good experience for them – to have a whole game come down to the last play.”

Bigfork’s size is obviously helpful, but Hammond said, “it isn’t necessarily what wins games.” More vital to success, he said, and what makes his job easier, is the versatility of his players. When senior guard Charlene Miller’s season ended with a knee injury in mid-December, Hammond wasn’t afraid to experiment with his lineup. The Vals have also played games without Vogel and senior post Jaylee Haveman, but with players like sophomore Kailey Fierro – Alyssa’s younger sister – and guards who can play anywhere on the court, Hammond hasn’t had a problem.

Bigfork senior Avery Vogel takes a moment to put on her shoes before basketball practice at Bigfork High School. Vogel leads the conference in assists.

“It’s been a blessing to have these other kids be able to (adapt),” he said.

Dan Fairbank, head coach of Columbia Falls, says Bigfork’s strength doesn’t come from one easily identifiable source. Rather it is a collection of individual qualities that mesh through a combination of the team’s play and Hammond’s coaching. The Vals are deep, he said, as evidenced by Thurman’s solid play since Miller’s injury.

“It would be nice if you just had to worry about Alyssa Fierro,” Fairbank said. “That would be very nice, but they’re so multi-faceted.”

In the most recent Montana Newspaper Association power poll released on Jan. 23, Bigfork was ranked third in the state in Class A. Undefeated Miles City and Anaconda, the only team to beat Bigfork, were ranked No. 1 and 2. The loss to Anaconda was the Vals’ first game of the season.

Alyssa Fierro, Bowen and Thurman all average more than 10 points per game, with Fierro and Bowen ranking fourth and fifth, respectively, in Northwest A. In all, four Vals rank toward the top of several conference statistical categories. Fierro is second in rebounding at just over 9 per game, Thurman is second in steals at more than four per game and Bowen isn’t far behind. And Vogel averages a league-best 6.2 assists per game. She led the conference last year as well.

Signa McLeod, left, defends the lane as Hattie Bowen drives to the basket during basketball practice at Bigfork High School.

Fierro and Vogel both talk about the Vals’ win over Flathead as a turning point in their season. Although they were already considered the top team in Northwest A, the win over a quality AA opponent proved they could play with anybody, Fierro said.

“I thought it showed us that we really are something,” she said. “That we’re a team people should recognize.”