The Toughest Little Conference in the State

By Beacon Staff

Northwestern A has the smallest number of teams of any conference in Class A, but it might cast the biggest shadow on the basketball court.

The five-team league has two of the top-ranked teams in the state in Columbia Falls and Polson, as well as a tall Whitefish team that will be tough to beat. Ronan returns all of its starters and Libby has the size and talent to cause problems for any opponent.

Mark Casazza, Whitefish’s second-year coach, has a frontcourt featuring 6-9 senior Alex Duroche, 6-6 senior Drew Galbraith and 6-5 junior Gage Vasquez, one of the top players in Class A. Vasquez is averaging close to 20 points so far in this young season.

At 6-9, Alex Duroche easily reaches over the heads of Bulldog teammates to retrieve a rebound during basketball practice at Whitefish High School.

To demonstrate the region’s strength, Casazza points out that Northwest Montana teams, including Class B Bigfork, won 10 out of 12 games at an annual tip-off tournament against Southwestern A foes. Whitefish beat Corvallis 62-60 and Stevensville 67-56.

“Everybody looked solid,” Casazza said. “Obviously, Columbia Falls and Polson are looking really good.”

“We have a competitive league this year,” he added.

Columbia Falls is again the team to beat. The Wildcats won state titles in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Then in 2009, they narrowly lost in the title game to Dillon 54-50. Last season, when many basketball observers felt the Wildcats were the best team in the state, they were upset by Laurel 47-43 in double-overtime before winning the rest of their games to finish third.

The Wildcats, guided by 15-year coach Cary Finberg, boast a deep, tall and skilled lineup. Leading the show is 6-5 senior point guard Nick Emerson, who has all the makings to be one of the best players in Montana at any level.

Finberg said Emerson put on 20-25 pounds in the offseason and has greatly improved his game. A 6-5 point guard who can shoot from the outside and run an offense comes along very rarely, and Finberg’s excited to see him come into his own.

“He’s just a kid who has a chance to be a special player,” Finberg said.

Senior Kaleb Johnson, 6-3, and junior Austin Barth, 6-6, were both named all-conference last season and are much improved as well. Johnson can play on the perimeter and inside, while Barth is comfortable moving from center to power forward down to small forward.

Drew Galbraith, right, drives up court during basketball practice at Whitefish High School.

With the versatility of Johnson and Barth, Finberg can move 6-2 Jacob Calderwood, a senior, and 6-4 Cale Vukonich, also a senior, into the post positions, giving the Wildcats an intimidating rotation. The Wildcats beat Stevensville 57-32 and Hamilton 66-47 to open the season.

“Slide your 6-6 post over to the three, Kaleb slides over to the two spot, and you have a 6-5 point guard with guys who are 6-4, 6-2 at the post – that’s a nice luxury to have,” Finberg said. “We’re really excited about the prospects of this group.”

Polson placed second at state last year, losing to Laurel 60-48 in the title game. The Pirates return many of their key players, including 6-4 senior Louis Mohr who was named MVP of the Class A state tourney. Fellow senior Kyle Bagnell, selected all-state last year, is a 6-2 forward with range.

Tyler Krell, a 6-6 junior, anchors the middle for Polson, while junior guard Vince DiGiallonardo is dangerous from the outside. Head coach Brad Pluff is in his second year.

“Polson has to be considered one of the favorites, not just in our division but in the state,” Finberg said.

Libby is always dangerous. Led by 13-year coach Wally Winslow, the Loggers feature two standout players in 6-4 senior post Alex Cislo and 6-1 senior guard Kelly May. Libby also has a 6-6 low-post presence in senior James Hare.

Steve Woll’s Ronan Chiefs return all five starters, the only team in Northwestern A that can make that claim. The Chiefs have two proven scorers in 6-2 forward Kevin Wroblewski and 5-9 guard Lucas Black.

Finberg said Dillon from Southwestern A will be tough once again, as will Browning and Butte Central. Laurel, the defending state champion, should also be in the mix.

“It’s going to be a fun year,” Finberg said. “Obviously getting to the state tournament is our goal. Once you get there, anything can happen. You can’t overlook anyone. It’s kind of a wide-open race right now.”

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