Championship Chasing in Bigfork

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Where the valley floor meets the northern shore of Flathead Lake, you can feel the steady rumbling of unified sports fervor.

The aftershocks of Bigfork High School’s first-ever state football title in November have not so much subsided as morphed into a celebration of the school’s basketball teams, which are both in the hunt for state titles of their own.

“People are excited and more people are coming to the games,” said Activities Director Matt Porrovecchio. “Some of that is carried over from football. It’s fun to go to games when you’re winning.”

Both the boys and girls basketball teams at Bigfork are undefeated in league play this year. The boys are 11-4 (8-0), while the girls are 13-1 (8-0). The Valkyries, in particular, aren’t just winning; they’re ruining opponents’ days. The Vals have won games by scores of 51-9, 72-32 and 62-21, to name a few.

Caitlin Charlebois races down court during practice at Bigfork High School.

Mallery Knoll, one of the Valkyries’ senior leaders, watched her brother Travis star on the football field during the Vikings’ state championship run. She enjoyed it, but now she wants to be part of it.

“We want to win state,” Knoll said. “We think we can do it. Everything’s clicking this year.”

Things are clicking for the boys too, but it took awhile. Coach Paul La Mott said the long football season made for a difficult transition into basketball. Players have only recently developed individual rhythm, let alone team chemistry.

“They won a state championship on a Saturday,” La Mott said, “and picked up a basketball for the first time the following Monday.”

But now, with both teams hitting their stride, the players carry the unmistakable swagger that comes with knowing they are true state contenders. Many teams say they are, but only a few believe it.

Watching a fellow high school team win a state title can alter youthful perceptions: No longer are championships vague dreams obscured in the distance; they are clear-eyed goals to be achieved with a belief in the moment.

For the girls, their state aspirations begin with three senior leaders. Knoll, Caitlin Charlebois and Quinci Paine vividly remember the Vals’ two close losses at the state tournament last year. And if they are to avenge those losses, they will do it with speed.

This year’s Valkyries, coached by Mark Hansen, are short, but their quickness is so far unmatched. Paine, at 5-7, plays post. Charlebois and Knoll, the engines for the offense, are speedsters who ably combine the sensibilities of both the point and shooting guard positions. Each has posted 20-point games.

“We’re quicker, faster, shorter,” Knoll said. “Everyone is versatile.”

Charlebois can feel the energy carried over from football, but she said it may be more apparent for the boys than the girls. After all, the boys feature some of the same players who led the Vikings to the football title.

“The boys are still riding on that,” Charlebois said. “We’re just trying to get there.”

The boys are coming off a season in which they finished 18-5 (10-0) before losing out at divisionals and failing to make state. This year’s squad is as deep and balanced as high school teams get. Lately, La Mott has used a true 10-man rotation, with at least five players capable of scoring in double figures. But when the Vikings are in need of baskets, they look to senior Christian Ker, one of the top players in Class B.

Quinci Paine drives the ball against Caitlin Charlebois while running drills at basketball practice in Bigfork.

At 6-4, Ker is the Vikings’ best post player and leader in three-point field goals, a combination that makes him extremely difficult to guard. He averages almost 20 points per game in a system that continuously rotates its lineups and thus keeps his minutes down. Not to mention, the starters often sit much of the fourth quarter in blowouts.

La Mott said Ker, who is also the team’s leading rebounder, is a “legitimate” college shooting guard or small forward.

“He’s been getting attention and he deserves to play at the next level,” La Mott said. “He’s going to help a college team in a big way because I really feel he has a lot more improvement in him.”

Like the girls, the Vikings’ Achilles heel has often been turnovers. La Mott said “we just had our first game of the year where we had more assists than turnovers.” But the fact that the Vikings have been winning despite a degree of sloppiness, La Mott said, speaks to their ability to clamp down on defense and their overall talent.

“The number one thing that they’re starting to do right now is play for each other and not for themselves,” La Mott said. “That, and defensive intensity, is the cornerstone of our program.”

There’s a lot of excitement surrounding Bigfork’s athletic program these days and La Mott said 2010-2011 will be remembered for many years. And it was that storybook run through the Class B state football tournament that started it all.

“It’s almost difficult to quantify just how much that meant to the town at large,” La Mott said. “It was just amazing. It’s really indescribable, what it was like around here.”

“Those young men don’t understand now,” he added, “but 10, 20 years from now they’re going to look back and it will be a very magical moment for them.”

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