Rolling into State

By Beacon Staff

The basketball tradition at Glacier High School keeps growing. At Bigfork, it’s back. And at Columbia Falls, it’s still firmly intact.

Another season is whittling down the best teams in Montana, and the short list includes several local squads.

In the Class AA ranks, Glacier fulfilled lofty preseason expectations and captured another Western AA conference title, its third in a row. The fifth-ranked Wolfpack secured an automatic berth to the AA state tournament with a decisive 69-37 victory last Friday at home against second-ranked Missoula Hellgate. For the fifth year in a row, Glacier advances to the state tournament in Great Falls, March 7-9.

“I really like the way they’ve played the last two weeks,” head coach Mark Harkins said after last week’s cross-town victory against Flathead. “I’m proud of the guys for putting themselves in the position to get to this point.”

The Wolfpack (17-3) are in search of the program’s first top-three trophy and will begin their renewed pursuit on March 7 at 5 p.m. against the fourth seed from the East. Billings Skyview (17-3) earned the top seed in the East.

With 10 seniors and two juniors, Glacier returns to the postseason with plenty of experience back from last year, when the Pack won their first state tournament game.

“They had very high expectations early on in the season,” Harkins said. “These kids have always played hard. There has never been an issue whether or not they will play hard. What I’ve seen them do is learn to not just rely on their athletic ability, but become a basketball team. They’ve developed as a team and really trust each other.”

At the Northwestern A divisional tournament in Ronan, Columbia Falls cruised through the bracket and rallied past Frenchtown to win its fifth straight title.

After trailing 28-22 at halftime of the championship game, the Wildcats scorched the Broncs for 44 points en route to a 64-54 victory. Columbia Falls (15-5) and Frenchtown (10-10) advance to the state tournament in Billings, March 7-9.

The Wildcats will open tourney action at 12:30 p.m. against the winner of a playoff game between Laurel and Glendive. Stevensville plays Browning at 2 p.m. Billings Central plays Frenchtown at 6:30 p.m. Belgrade plays Butte Central at 8 p.m.

The Wildcats lost to Dillon 55-43 in last year’s Class A title game and won the championship in 2009.

At the Western B divisional tournament in Kalispell last week, third-ranked Bigfork (19-4) earned a trip to Butte for the state tournament March 7-9, after missing out last season. The Vikings dropped No. 8 Missoula Loyola in the semifinals before meeting top-ranked Florence in the finale. After suffering their only loss earlier in the season against Bigfork, the Falcons (22-1) had enough to hold off the Vikings in the fourth quarter and win 48-38.

Several other local teams are vying for tournament berths this week.

Glacier’s Evan Epperly reacts to hitting a three during the second half of the Wolfpack win over Flathead. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

On Monday, the top-ranked Columbia Falls girls (17-4) defeated Polson (9-13) in a challenge game. The Wildkats advanced to the state tournament this weekend in Butte. Frenchtown (16-4) won its second divisional title in a row after beating Columbia Falls 49-37 in last weekend’s championship. Columbia Falls will play Billings Central (14-7) at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday. Frenchtown opens up state tourney play against either Hardin (13-7) or Laurel (15-6).

The Flathead girls (10-9) host Missoula Big Sky (8-12) on Friday, March 1, at 6 p.m. in a playoff game.

Glacier’s girls (16-4) host Helena (5-14) on Thursday at 6 p.m. The winners all advance to state.

“I feel good. I feel real confident,” said Glacier girls coach Kris Salonen. “We just have to get the kids prepared. I want them to play hard. They have to get that understanding that we have to compete every game.”

The Flathead Braves (10-10) travel to Missoula for a playoff game against Hellgate (16-4) on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.

Here’s a list of all the Class AA playoff games this week.

The Braves followed a familiar storyline this season. Last year’s team, just like this year’s squad, was picked to finish sixth in the standings in a preseason coaches poll. Flathead would like to repeat last year’s result, when the Braves claimed a playoff seed for the third year in a row, stunned Billings Senior and Glacier in the bracket and played in the state title game.

“We can’t be concerned with who we play. We have to be concerned with how we play,” Flathead head coach Fred Febach said. “That’s the critical thing. At this point in the season, we have to be willing to play anybody, anywhere, any time. I feel good about our chances that way. I’ve got some good kids who practice hard. Now we have one last opportunity.”

RELATED: Pack on Top

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