It began like a Sunday service and ended like a community bash.
The faithful fans from Columbia Falls who traveled nearly 20 miles through the worst of winter to praise their beloved basketball teams had plenty to celebrate last weekend.
The young and restless Wildkats reclaimed the conference trophy, ripping it from the grips of the twice-reigning champs from Frenchtown.
All-state senior Haley Belgarde powered in a game-high 21 points, junior Winter Kemppainen and freshman Cydney Finberg each added 11 and Columbia Falls defeated the Frenchtown Lady Broncs 53-47 in the Northwestern A championship game at Glacier High School, which was pushed back a day because of severe weather.
“You have to hand it to Columbia Falls. That’s why they’re rated No.1 in Montana,” said Frenchtown coach Jim Tolman.
The follow-up act was no less phenomenal.
In front of the raucous crowd that follows its team to all corners of the state, the dominating Wildcats overwhelmed rival Whitefish and won their sixth consecutive Northwestern A title.
Senior forward Jared Trinastich scored a game-high 14 points and senior guard Alex Presnell netted 11 as Columbia Falls downed Whitefish 51-37. The boys roll into this week’s Class A state tournament with a 16-4 record. They play Havre at 2 p.m. Thursday in the opening round in Great Falls.
The Columbia Falls girls team, the top-ranked squad in Class A with an impressive 19-1 record, rolls into the state tournament riding a 12-game win streak. The girls play the winner Belgrade in the opening round of the tournament at 12:30 p.m., March 13, in Great Falls.
With the basketball season reaching its exciting apex, it’s not surprising to see Columbia Falls still playing.
But for a school with as much hoops tradition as this one, last weekend still marked a milestone event.
Cary Finberg, at the helm for both the boys and girls teams, became the first Class A head coach to win two divisional titles in the same night.
Earlier this season, the Columbia Falls native passed Ralph Johnson as the winningest boys head coach in school history. In his 18th season coaching the boys, Finberg picked up his 268th career victory at home against Eureka on Jan. 30, passing Johnson’s all-time mark. Johnson, who coached the Wildcats, including Finberg’s late brother, Craig, from 1962 to 1981, earned a lifetime record of 267-172. Finberg was a freshman at Columbia Falls when Johnson retired.
“To be put in his company is very humbling,” Finberg said of Johnson. “As a kid you looked up to him. I never would imagine that I would be in his shoes, so to speak. To come back to your hometown and to have the success has been very rewarding.”
This season Finberg also picked up his 300th overall win between boys and girls. He enters this week’s state tournament with a 320-153 combined record.
Sunday’s conference championship matchup was a fitting conclusion to the tournament. When the Lady Broncs joined Northwestern A two years ago, Columbia Falls was the team to beat. The Wildkats had won three straight divisional titles. But then Frenchtown upset the order, winning the last two, including last year’s 49-37 chipper over Columbia Falls.
“Last year we were starting to turn the corner a little bit as far as walking out on the floor with confidence. This year I’ve seen it from day one,” Finberg said of the girls team. “They knew that they had a chance to be pretty good. They had a great offseason and put the time in and now they’re reaping the rewards for all that hard work.”
It wasn’t easy unseating the defending champs but the Wildkats whittled away at the Lady Broncs’ early lead in the title game. With the game tied 34-all entering the fourth quarter, the depth of Columbia Falls shined bright.
“(Coach Finberg) can go 10-deep. They can shoot and they got the big girls inside, and they’re just well coached,” Tolman said. “You put a lot of girls together who are well coached, you’ll come out with some pretty good results.”
While it’s been business as usual for the boys, this has been a banner season for the girls program, harkening back to the great 1980s teams under Hall of Famer Larry Schmautz. Columbia Falls won its lone girls championship in 1983 when the team played in Class AA. The girls beat Helena 68-53. In 1986, after the program moved to Class A, the Wildkats lost to Billings Central, 51-35, in the championship.
Finberg would like to think this group of girls has the ability to end the nearly 30-year drought.
“When I took over I wanted to take this program to a different level,” he said. “We wanted to compete against the AA schools. We wanted to get to state and win games at state.”
As far as the boys go, a strong tradition of excellence appears firmly intact.
The Wildcats have finished third place or better every year since 2009. Last year the boys brought home a third-place trophy from the state tournament. The squad won the title in 2011, placed second both in 2012 and 2009 and earned third in 2010.
It’s been a remarkable run for one of Montana’s true dynasties.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had some talented players and some kids who buy into the team mentality. This team is no different,” Finberg said.
“These boys spend a lot of time in offseason. It doesn’t just happen. To win the last (six conference championships) has been a nice ride. These kids have earned that right. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
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