Classic Kats

The Columbia Falls Wildkats are looking to finish another banner basketball season by bringing home hardware from the state tournament

By Dillon Tabish
From left: Columbia Falls seniors Kiara Burlage, Peyton Kehr and Cydney Finberg. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

It can start with something as seemingly simple as a big rebound. Like a wildfire, it can rapidly spread with a quick transition basket. Then a steal and sudden three-pointer. And just like that, in a flash, the Wildkats are roaring.

The dominating nature of this latest Columbia Falls girls basketball team is as impressive as it is intimidating. The Kats are averaging nearly 70 points per game through 21 contests. They’ve surpassed the 80-point mark five times. Just as notable, opponents have averaged barely 30 points per game. Only four opposing teams have even managed to score more than 45. The single blemish on the team’s record this winter occurred against the top-ranked team in Class AA, Missoula Sentinel, 41-36.

In other words, mark this down as another banner season in C-Town. With a starting lineup that resembles an all-state team and a 20-1 overall record, the Kats are rolling into the Class A state tournament for the fourth year in a row.

The girls are riding a 10-game win streak entering this week’s tournament in Butte. Columbia Falls opens first-round action against Laurel (11-10) at 12:30 p.m. on March 2.

“We’re playing good basketball right now,” head coach Cary Finberg said. “We just have to make sure we haven’t peaked.”

In what most teams would love to consider peak performance, Columbia Falls captured the Western A divisional trophy last weekend with commanding efficiency. Over a three-day span, the Kats beat Hamilton, 55-28, Butte Central, 57-48, and Corvallis, 71-40.

“(In recent games) we’ve played very good from the start of each game and we jumped out on teams and set the tone early defensively,” Finberg said last week before the divisional tournament. “Obviously that gets our offense going, and offensively we’re getting contributions from a lot of different kids in a lot of different areas. Rebounding, assists, steals — you name it. We’ve got a lot of options.”

Finberg considers this year’s starting five the best that Columbia Falls has had, at least in his tenure. The team has five seniors and four all-state starters: senior guard Cydney Finberg, senior forward Kiara Burlage, senior forward Peyton Kehr and junior guard Dani Douglas.

Finberg, a four-year varsity starter, and Douglas, who transferred from Whitefish, are the team’s reliable sharpshooters. Both have attempted more than 100 three-pointers apiece, each making about 40 percent. The girls are averaging roughly 12 points per game apiece. Burlage, another multi-year starter, is leading the squad on offense, averaging more than 15, while Kehr is averaging about 14.

A reliable supporting cast has stepped up when needed. Last weekend, Trista Cowan netted 14 in the divisional title game and Sydney Hovde had 17 in the second-round divisional contest against Butte Central.

“The strength of this team is our starting five and our length and the number of kids who can do so many things,” coach Finberg said. “They’re very unselfish and everybody gets their piece of the pie, so to speak.”

This year’s team, like others before it, has played with a fierce competitive spirit fueled by a lofty season-ending goal. The one and only time Columbia Falls won a state championship was in 1983, when the squad captured the Class AA title.

In recent years, the Kats have put together a streak of successful seasons that merits praise regardless of hardware. Columbia Falls is 82-10 overall in the last four seasons and 29-1 in conference. The team brought home third-place state trophies in 2014 and 2015 and a second-place trophy last year. Last year’s runner-up finish was the program’s best since 1986.

“We’ve been in this position before and haven’t came out on top,” Burlage said. “But I think we have the confidence to finish this year.”

“We’ve been waiting for this since last year,” Kehr added.

Coach Finberg, who’s plenty familiar with state tournaments and postseason excitement from his 20-plus years of coaching boys and girls, said he placed the responsibility on the players to stay focused and motivated every practice and game.

“They’ve done that,” he said.

A few early tests arrived with solid results. In the second game of the season, Columbia Falls handily defeated Butte Central, the defending state champs who beat the Wildkats in last year’s title game. The Kats took down Class AA Flathead, 57-42, and shined during a hostile three-game stretch, beating Class AA Glacier, 44-40, narrowly losing to Missoula Sentinel and then defeating Frenchtown, 51-40.

“Those are the type of challenges you want to have during the season,” Finberg said.

Now it’s tournament time, which means none of that matters. Butte Central (16-6) is still defending champ. Hardin (20-1) is riding an 18-game win streak. Havre has shined in the Central division.

The Kats know what happens next will be the toughest test of all.

“It’s going to be a fun tournament,” coach Finberg said.

“The team that plays the best three consecutive nights is going to win the state tournament, and hopefully this year that’s us.”

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