Several local squads are back with bolstered lineups, especially in Columbia Falls, where the boys and girls teams are both primed for big seasons.
Here’s a guide to the prep season:
Glacier’s streak of three consecutive Western AA conference championships is in danger. The Wolfpack will have their hands full with Missoula Hellgate and Tres Tinkle. Four players with starting experience are back from Hellgate’s state championship team. Most notably, Tinkle, a 6-foot-6 junior star, is back as the reigning Montana Gatorade Player of the Year.
Glacier head coach Mark Harkins, in his seventh year, has several spots to fill in the lineup and only one full-time starter returning from last season, which ended with a loss in the state consolation game.
Evan Epperly, a 5-9 senior all-state guard, is entering his fourth year as a leader on the varsity squad. Last season he averaged 10.4 points per game, four assists and three steals. Following up a successful football season, Epperly should produce similar standout results on the hardwood. Bryan Michaels, a 6-2 senior, also brings back varsity experience and will see an increased role. Last year he averaged 7.8 ppg and 6 rebounds per game. Kyler Harkins, a 6-4 senior, and Tanner Olsen, a 6-1 senior, will garner more minutes on the court, too.
Similar to Glacier’s situation, Flathead is looking for new players to emerge and fill in the starting lineup. Head coach Fred Febach, in his 11th season, will look for leadership from more than a handful of seniors: Matt Quist, a 6-4 senior, Will Cronk, a 6-0 senior, Chandler Escalante, a 6-0 senior, Blaine Newman, a 6-0 senior, Tommy Owens, a 6-4 senior, and Adam Bradley, a 6-3 senior.
The Braves will try to improve on last season’s finish, when Flathead ended in sixth place in the West.
On the girls side, Glacier returns woth a sizeable amount of talent, including all-state senior Cassi Hashley. The 6-1 Carroll College recruit will try to lead the Wolfpack back to the state tournament for the third year in a row. Last season she averaged 15.3 ppg and 13 rebounds.
All-state sophomore Hailee Bennett, a 5-7 guard who averaged 7 ppg, four assists and three rebounds last year, also returns with significant experience, along with Hannah Atlee, a 5-11 senior, Taylor Salonen, a 5-10 junior, and Katie Wiley, a 5-11 junior.
Fourth-year head coach Kris Salonen will try to guide Glacier past Missoula Sentinel, the two-time defending state champion and Western AA powerhouse. The Wolfpack dealt Sentinel its lone loss a year ago and placed third in the West.
The Bravettes have a new head coach, Lisa Hendrickson, who will try to continue Flathead’s rise in the West. Hendrickson has served as the assistant women’s basketball coach at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., since 2006. She replaced Karli Tait, who stepped down as the Bravettes head coach after four seasons. The Bravettes were 31-52 the past four seasons. The team qualified for the Class AA state tournament last year for the first time since 2008.
All-state senior guard Emma Andrews is back for Flathead as the team’s leading scorer and one of the best in Montana. Andrews averaged 13.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and three steals per game a year ago.
The bolstered Columbia Falls Wildcats have their eyes on another state trophy. Two seniors, Jared Trinastich and Alex Presnell, are back leading the way for 18th-year head coach Cary Finberg. With a lineup full of players 6-3 or taller, this is one of Finberg’s tallest teams. It’s also one of the more athletic squads, meaning C-Town is poised for another championship run.
“It will be fun and exciting for the fans, and the kids are really buying in and I think they will really thrive,” Finberg said.
The Wildcats brought home a third-place trophy from the state tournament last season. It was the team’s fifth consecutive trip to state. In that span, the Wildcats have not finished below third place. Columbia Falls won the title in 2011, placed second both in 2012 and 2009 and earned third in 2010.
Finberg has a deep pool of talent to draw from, including Ty Morgan, a 5-10 junior, Austin Kimmet, a 6-3 junior, and Nakia Alexander, a 6-0 senior. Grant Wallace, a 6-6 sophomore, and Grant Stenger, a 6-6 junior, provide size along with 6-5 Trinastich, along with the 6-4 duo of Mason Gedlaman and Justice McManus.
Whitefish, under fifth-year head coach Mark Casazza, has a solid core to build around. Keaton Nicholson, a 6-2 senior, and Arthur Doorn, a 6-4 senior, are back for the Bulldogs along with EJ Havens, a 5-11 senior, and A.J. Wetsch, a 6-3 junior. There’s also the addition of 6-8 transfer Garrett Anderson.
The Bulldogs finished second in conference last season but failed to advance past the divisional tournament.
Polson, under fifth-year head coach Brad Pluff, will try to regain its position as one of the conference’s best teams. Andrew Weltz, a 6-3 senior, and Cedrick Smith, a 5-11 senior, lead the list of returning Pirates with solid experience. Polson dropped to the bottom of the Northwestern A standings last year after a string of successful seasons.
Wally Winslow, entering his 16th year as Libby’s head coach, has only one returning starter, senior Jared Winslow. The Loggers, which finished at the bottom of the conference standings last season, will look for players like Quinn Sullivan, a 6-3 senior, and Colin Johnson, a 5-9 junior, to lead the revival.
On the girls side, Columbia Falls has a strong lineup of returning starters, including all-state senior Haley Belgarde, who want to unseat Frenchtown as the conference champs. That could happen thanks to a tall lineup of players who now have three years of experience in Finberg’s system.
“We feel very good about the girls team,” Finberg, who works double duty coaching both boys and girls squads, said.
As a junior, Belgarde averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds and led Columbia Falls to the state tournament with a 17-4 record. There’s high hopes for this year’s squad with Belgarde back along with Andrea Getts, a senior, Winter Kemppainen, a junior, and Ciera Finberg, a junior.
Polson has a new head coach, Jay Krantz, who will try to rebuild the Lady Pirates with one returning starter, Jessica Bagnell. The team finished third in the conference last year.
Whitefish, also under a new head coach, Clint Peters, has two returning starters: Simone Kraft, a senior, and Allie Schulz, a sophomore. The Bulldogs will try to improve on last year’s 1-19 record.
Libby, under 18th year head coach Jim May, has junior Hailley Moe, and sophomores Gavy Oliver and Ashley Walker back with experience. The Lady Loggers finished fourth in conference last season.
Senior Christian Evans is back as the Vikings all-state scorer from a year ago. The Vikings achieved one of the best seasons in program history last year, tallying a 20-7 record. Malta held off Bigfork 47-35 in the state semifinals and went on to edge Wolf Point 66-62 in three overtimes for the title. The Vikings battled in the consolation bracket, defeating Columbus 65-44 but losing to Florence 61-49 in the third-place game.
Josh Downey is taking over as the team’s head coach. Kurt Paulson stepped down after two seasons to join the University of Montana coaching staff.
The Valkyries will try to improve on last year’s 9-15 record.
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