COLUMBIA FALLS – Cary Finberg has taken five Columbia Falls High School boys basketball teams to the Class A state championship game since 2003 and has won four titles in that span. His record speaks for itself. He doesn’t have to prove himself as a head coach.
Yet, here in mid-December, Finberg finds himself in the unlikely position of starting anew, as if learning the ropes all over again. For all his accolades, they have all been achieved in boys basketball. But this year, Finberg is also the girls basketball coach, becoming one of only a handful of Montana coaches to guide both teams during the same season.
“I used to spend two-and-a-half, three hours a day in the gym,” Finberg said last week in between girls and boys varsity practices. “Now I’m in here six, six-and-a-half hours a day. But I love to be in the gym. I love the kids and I love the game of basketball. I enjoy it.”
Montana’s girls basketball season used to be held in the fall while boys played in the winter. But since 2003, the seasons have both been played during the winter. In that time, several coaches have pulled the double duty shift, generally at smaller Class C schools. It appears Finberg is the first to do it at the Class A level.
Paul Barta understands the long hours Finberg will face this season. Barta was both the girls and boys coach at Columbus High School for years, though he no longer coaches at the varsity level. Just like with Columbia Falls’ schedule, Columbus had doubleheader varsity games so both the girls and boys could play on the same night. Tournament time, Barta said, was particularly hectic.
“The biggest thing is if you love basketball and have a passion for the game and the kids, it’s enjoyment no matter what,” Barta said. “Cary loves the game just like his brother did.”
Finberg’s older brother, Craig Finberg or “Finny,” was a Montana basketball legend who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2009. Finny starred at Columbia Falls High School in the 1970s before playing at Montana State University. He also had a distinguished coaching career at Dillon and the University of Montana Western.
Finberg revered his brother, as he does the rest of his family. The Finbergs are a united bunch and they name themselves accordingly, starting each first name with a “C.” In addition to Cary and Craig, sister Cathy was a star basketball player and now coaches the girls junior varsity team at Columbia Falls. Cary brought on his nephew Christopher to coach the boys junior varsity.
And then there’s the pair of kids who largely serve as Cary’s motivation for taking on the girls coaching job: his two daughters, freshman Ciera and seventh-grader Cydney.
Finberg, who owns the Columbia Bar, had long thought about coaching his daughters and when former varsity coach Dan Fairbank left the job after last season, he saw his opportunity to take over the girls program, just as his daughters are reaching high school age. Last spring, school officials approved his hiring and he wasted no time in upping the girls’ offseason training routines.
Activities Director John Thompson has worked hard to accommodate the coach’s unique situation and schedule, Finberg said. The transition has been smooth, allowing Finberg to focus on what he does best: developing players and teaching the game of basketball.
Finberg takes over a girls team that has dominated Northwestern A the past three years but has failed to make much noise at state. The Wildkats have won three straight conference titles, going a combined 24-2 in league games. But they have won only one state tournament game during that span, a 46-41 victory over Frenchtown in the 2009-2010 season.
In general, Northwestern A girls teams have struggled at the state level over most of the past decade. The last time a team from the conference made it to the state title game was 2003 when Whitefish lost 57-51 to Dillon. In that same period, the Columbia Falls boys have made it to five championship games and won four titles, including last year.
The girls have played in two title games in their history, beating Helena 68-53 in 1983’s Class AA championship and losing 51-35 to Billings Central in 1986’s Class A championship.
“There’s no reason these girls can’t play with the rest of the girls around the state just the like boys do,” Finberg said. “That’s something I want to change for the girls.”
Now that former standout Kayla DeWit has graduated and moved on to play for MSU, the girls are seeking to establish their core rotation. Seventeen of the 28 girls in the program are freshmen and only a few girls have varsity experience.
Junior Hope Burlage has the most experience. As a sophomore, Burlage averaged 8.5 points and 7.1 rebounds, both second on the team behind DeWit.
Meanwhile, the boys have a shot at repeating as defending champions. They have returned three of their top scorers: Anthony Correa, Parker Johnson and Ausin Barth, all seniors. Barth is one of the most highly touted players in the state.
Finberg said he is approaching the girls coaching job the same as he approaches the boys job, though he will run into inevitable differences. Barta, the former Columbus coach, said the core coaching principles remain the same with both boys and girls, but situational differences arise, dealing mostly with “emotions” and “ego.”
“With girls, the biggest thing is dealing with emotions,” he said. “It’s the nature of boys to be dealing more with ego.”
Barta has no doubts that, no matter what situations arise, Finberg “will do well.”
“If you have a passion for it, then you’ll have success,” Barta said. “Cary has a passion for the game and he’s a great guy.”
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