The Northwestern A basketball landscape has a familiar look to it entering this week’s divisional tournament – Columbia Falls on top, and everybody else trying to make up ground.
But the distance between the top of the standings and the middle is small, with multiple teams in both the boys and girls brackets looking prepared to make a run at the title. The Northwestern A boys and girls divisional tourney is held at Ronan High School Feb. 21-23, with the championships slated for Saturday night.
Mark Casazza, Whitefish’s boys head coach, said there is more parity in the league this year than at any other time during his coaching tenure, setting the stage for an unpredictable tournament. His second-seeded Bulldogs (11-7, 6-2) are the only team in the conference to have beaten top-seeded Columbia Falls (13-5, 7-1) – a 50-35 victory on Jan. 12.
“On any given night, any team can upset another team,” Casazza said. “It’s going to be one of the more exciting divisionals we’ve had in awhile.”
And on the girls side, while top-seeded and Class A No. 1 Columbia Falls is undefeated in the conference at 8-0 and 15-3 overall, the Wildkats’ road to an unblemished regular season mark was nearly stopped twice by defending champion Frenchtown.
Columbia Falls defeated Frenchtown (14-4, 6-2) only by slim margins in both meetings. The Lady Broncs’ four losses have been by a combined nine points: one, two, two and four. Last year in their first season with Northwestern A, the Broncos won the divisional tournament title.
Frenchtown head coach Jim Tolman said his team lost three seniors and two starters – both of whom went on to play college – from last year’s squad. Somewhat predictably, the Broncs struggled out of the gates, going 1-3. They are 13-1 since.
Leading the Lady Broncs’ strong late-season push has been junior Vanessa Stavish, an inside-out threat who leads the conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game and is second in rebounding at 8.9. Tolman feels good about his team heading into the tourney.
“I like our chances,” Tolman said.
Columbia Falls has won seven of the last eight combined Northwestern A divisional championships for both boys and girls. The only time a Wildkat or Wildcat team hasn’t won the league crown since 2009 was last year, when the girls came in third.
The boys have won four straight divisional titles while the girls’ 2012 third-place finish snapped a streak of three straight titles. This year, they’re both seeded No. 1 yet again and favorites to make another trip to the Class A tournament.
In seeking its fifth straight conference title, Columbia Falls has once again demonstrated an offensive balance that makes the team deadly even if a top scorer is having an off night. The Wildcats have three players averaging double figures scoring, led by senior Luke Kazlauskas at 14.8.
Junior Alex Presnell averages 11.3 points and junior Jared Trinastich averages 10.9. Presnell is shooting an incredible 93.4 percent from the free-throw line on 57 of 61 shooting. Trinastich is second in the league in rebounding at 8.6 per game.
Head coach Cary Finberg is happy with his team’s performance this season after losing all five starters from last year’s state runner-up squad. With a first-round bye, the Wildcats await the winner of Thursday night’s game between fourth-seeded Polson (6-12, 1-7) and fifth-seeded Libby (7-11, 1-7).
“Over the last five or six games they have been playing their best basketball of the year,” Finberg said after a 67-56 victory over Polson on Feb. 14 to close out the regular season. “It took this team awhile for the guys to find their roles.”
Whitefish has a similarly balanced offense, led by senior Cooper Olson’s 13.1 points per game, good enough for fourth in Northwestern A. Olson has made the most three-pointers in the league with 48 on 36.6 percent shooting. Logan Harwood averages 10.9 points.
The second-seeded Bulldogs face third-seeded Frenchtown (9-9, 5-3) on Friday night. The two teams split the season series with one win apiece.
“The guys are ready to go,” Casazza said. “They’re playing hard. They’re playing together.”
Like the boys, Columbia Falls’ girls have a bye and won’t play until Friday. They will play the winner of Thursday night’s game between No. 4 Libby (3-15, 1-7) and No. 5 Whitefish (1-17, 1-7).
Anchoring the post for the Wildkats are junior Haley Belgarde and senior Hope Burlage. Belgarde is second in the conference in scoring (15.1) and first in rebounding (10.8), while Burlage ranks in the top 10 in both categories at 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.
Finberg, who coaches both the boys and girls, said he’s pleased with his young team’s growth, “considering where we were at a year ago with young players and very few returning lettermen from the year before.”
“They bought into the offseason program and they worked extremely hard,” Finberg said. “The results are showing that.”
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