On Home Court, Columbia Falls Ready to Defend Titles

By Beacon Staff

This season has been a learning experience for longtime Columbia Falls head basketball coach Cary Finberg.

As if trying to shepherd a boys team back to the state championship was not strenuous enough, Finberg has also taken the reins of a girls program that includes only two seniors and 17 freshmen. Lucky for Finberg, he lives across the street from the high school gym, a site that has always been a second home for the Columbia Falls native.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” Finberg said of coaching both the boys and girls varsity teams for the first time. “It’s a lot of time in the gym, but that’s where I like to be anyways.”

Finberg’s juggling act culminates this week when both Columbia Falls basketball teams will try to defend their division titles, which both teams have won three years in a row. The Northwestern A divisional basketball tournaments start Thursday in Columbia Falls, which is hosting for the first time since 2006. The top two boys and girls teams will advance to Butte for the Class A state tournaments. Visit flatheadbeacon.com for live updates from the divisionals.

On the boys side, this year’s tournament seeds are as follows: No. 1 Columbia Falls (15-3 overall, 8-0 in conference); No. 2 Whitefish (11-7, 6-2); No. 3 Frenchtown (6-12, 3-5); No. 4 Polson (7-11, 2-6); and No. 5 Libby (4-14, 1-7).

For girls: No. 1 Frenchtown (16-2, 8-0); No. 2 Polson (14-4, 6-2); No. 3 Columbia Falls (7-11, 4-4); No. 4 Libby (4-14, 1-7); and No. 5 Whitefish (1-17, 1-7).

Finberg is booked solid on Friday. The girls play Polson at 4 p.m. and the boys play immediately afterward against the winner of Libby and Polson.

“I’m not really sure what to expect,” he said. “But we’re excited. This is what you play for the whole year and I feel both teams are playing pretty good basketball at the moment.”

The reigning state champion Wildcats have won 10 games in a row and look poised for a trip to Butte to defend their title. Two of the team’s three losses came in the first weeks of the season, against Class AA Flathead and Southwestern A Stevensville. For a program that rarely loses, there was a little concern early on. But in the last month, the Wildcats have regained their old dominance.

“We just didn’t really have an identity with this team at that point early on,” Finberg said. “We were relying on our offense too much and were thinking we could just outscore teams. I think that kind of bit us a few times.”

Finberg credited the team’s recent success to defensive intensity, a staple of past Wildcat teams.

“After that rough start I think we kind of woke up a little bit and realized what direction we wanted to go and after that we haven’t looked back.”

Three players on Columbia Falls are averaging double-figure scoring — Anthony Correa (12.9 points per game), Austin Barth (12.6 ppg), and Parker Johnson (10.2 ppg).

Whitefish has its eyes set on a trip back to the state tournament for the first time in three seasons. Senior Gage Vasquez is leading the Bulldogs’ resurgence, averaging 18.6 ppg.

On the girls side, Columbia Falls’ Hope Burlage, who is averaging 11.8 ppg, will try and lead the Wildkats to state for the fourth year in a row. Finberg, who took over for Dan Fairbank, said inexperience has been the team’s biggest hurdle but both he and the girls have learned a lot this season.

“It took awhile for me to learn about the girls and for them to learn about me. But this group has worked hard and I think they believe in each other,” Finberg said. “It’s just a matter of if we believe we can get a win this week.”

Northwestern A Divisionals
Columbia Falls, Feb. 23-25
8 p.m. — Polson vs. Libby
6 p.m. — Columbia Falls vs. Polson/Libby winner
8 p.m. — Whitefish vs. Frenchtown
Consolation game, 4 p.m.
Championship, 8 p.m.

6 p.m. — Whitefish vs. Libby
2 p.m. — Frenchtown vs. Whitefish/Libby winner
4 p.m. — Polson vs. Columbia Falls
Consolation, 2 p.m.
Championship, 6 p.m.