COLUMBIA FALLS – Hanging high on the gymnasium walls at Columbia Falls High School are rows of state championship banners from past boys basketball teams.
The tradition is clear.
Once again, this year the Columbia Falls Wildcats are at the top of Northwest A in boys basketball. But as always, a good regular season record means very little to this team without a state tournament berth.
The boys remember last year’s upset loss to Libby in the divisional tournament that prevented the No. 1 Wildcats from advancing to the state tournament.
“We still have a bad taste in our mouths from last year’s tournament,” said junior Mackie Nolan.
After starting off 3-3, Columbia Falls has gone 7-2 with its only losses coming against co-league leader Ronan and Libby. The Feb. 2 loss to Libby snapped a five-game win streak for the Wildcats, which included a double-overtime victory over Class AA Missoula Big Sky. The Wildcats, 10-5 (5-2), are hoping to win their remaining three regular season games to earn a top seed in divisionals. The top two seeds get a first-round bye, which will help significantly in what should be a competitive tournament.
“Getting to state is the hard part,” Finberg said. “Then anything can happen.”
Columbia Falls isn’t the tallest team. What the Wildcats lack in size, they make up for with good shooting, solid ball movement and a sense of teamwork that comes partly from their focused emphasis on practice. Talk to the players or Finberg, and practice is bound to come up.
The Wildcats’ statistics reflect their balance and teamwork. They lead the conference in assists as well as steals on defense. The Wildcats also average 63 points per game, third-best in Northwest A, led by their big three: seniors Chase Grilley and Chase Fairbank, and junior Nolan. Grilley leads the team in scoring at 17.1 points per game. He also leads in rebounding, assists and steals. Fairbank provides consistent guard play, ranking in the conference’s top ten in assists and steals. Nolan is a double-digit scorer who is also in the top ten in assists.
The depth of their scoring attack, anchored by a few consistent shooters, has carried the Wildcats through a couple of games when they weren’t rebounding well or when another part of their game was lacking, Nolan said. Uncanny teamwork helps too.
“Everybody seems to know where the other person is going to be and what they’re thinking,” Grilley said.
Even in the middle of their latest winning streak, Finberg occasionally brings up last year’s divisional loss to his players.
“Something these kids really need to realize is that one possession here, one possession there, can cost you the game,” Finberg said. “It can cost you the season.”
Columbia Falls, which finished 14-4 (11-1) last year, has won three out of the last five Class A state championships, taking titles in 2003, 2005 and 2006. For Grilley, who played on the last championship team, it’s a great feeling to be part of the program’s winning tradition.
“It’s exciting knowing every year you’re tops in the league and the state, knowing every night you can compete with any team,” Grilley said. “And the fans are great.”
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