Northwestern A Divisionals: Columbia Falls Wins Fourth Straight League Title

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Cary Finberg, Columbia Falls’ head boys basketball coach, stood back and watched his team celebrate its 66-40 divisional championship victory on its home court Saturday night over rival Whitefish. As students and parents swarmed his players, Finberg looked about as proud as a coach could be.

It was the Wildcats’ fourth straight divisional title. For players like Austin Barth, who has played four years of varsity, it was the culmination of an undefeated divisional tournament career, an accomplishment that will forever cement this year’s class of seniors in Columbia Falls basketball lore.

It’s pretty easy to understand why Finberg looked so proud.

“This is a very special class,” the coach said of his seniors. “Regardless of what happens at state, this class has been successful. They’re just very special. They all get along. They work well together.”

Along with Barth, the seniors are Anthony Correa, Parker Johnson, Brian Marcille and Ronny Gallegos.

“It’s a great group,” Finberg said. “I’m definitely going to miss them.”

Now these seniors will try to lead Columbia Falls to its second straight Class A title. The Wildcats beat Dillon 55-43 to claim last year’s title. They finished third the year before and second in 2009, when this year’s seniors were freshmen.

Overall, Columbia Falls has appeared in five Class A state championship games under Finberg since 2003, winning four. The Wildcats’ lone loss, in 2009, was by four points to Dillon, 54-50.

Columbia Falls (17-3) opened up Saturday night’s championship game with a 9-0 run. Whitefish battled back and held tough throughout the first half, at times figuring out the Wildcats’ swarming trap defense. At halftime, Columbia Falls led 27-17.

But during a spirited third quarter in front of a raucous home crowd, Columbia Falls blew the game open, outscoring Whitefish 26-8 in the period.

“We had tremendous execution and tremendous effort all night,” Finberg said. “We played 32 minutes.”

Gage Vasquez led Whitefish (12-8) with 15 points. Cooper Olson chipped in seven and Jake Slaybaugh finished with six.

The Bulldogs will play Polson (9-12) at 6:30 p.m. Monday night at Columbia Falls High School in a challenge game to decide who joins Columbia Falls from the Northwestern A conference at state. The Class A boys state tournament is held March 1-3 in Butte.

Correa led the Wildcats with 15 points, followed by Johnson with 12 and Jared Trinastich with 10. Barth finished with nine points, as did Luke Kazlauskas.

Barth, at 6-feet-6, stood high above the sea of Columbia Falls fans that had flooded the court immediately after Saturday’s divisional title victory. He had the same look of pride as his coach, and he spoke just as warmly about his fellow seniors. Fittingly, he was about to go hang out with those seniors right after he left the gym.

“We’re all good friends,” he said. “That’s why we have that team chemistry and that team bonding out there. We’re close.”

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