Sports

Winter Prep Sports Preview

Basketball, wrestling and swimming seasons begin this weekend with a handful of Flathead Valley programs eyeing state championships

The last echoes of the fall season are still ringing around Montana, but the prep sports scene has already moved indoors, with basketball, wrestling and swimming teams all hard at work in advance of the season’s first competitions this weekend.

The Flathead Valley has brought home four state basketball titles, two in wrestling and a pair in the pool in the last three seasons alone, and this year’s crop of teams includes at least a handful with realistic title hopes.

On the hardwood, it’s a tale of two different title chases for the valley’s two recent stalwarts. The two-time defending state champion Bigfork boys will be looking to replace nearly their entire roster, and their head coach from a season ago, while the always reliable Columbia Falls girls return a young and gifted core from a team that has finished in the top three in the state for six straight seasons. Meanwhile, the four Kalispell programs all have reason to be optimistic after just one, the Glacier girls, qualified for the state tournament a season ago.

On the mat, Flathead is looking to rebound from a seventh-place finish at state in 2018-19 — a down year for a program with lofty expectations — and brings back almost all of its state qualifiers from last year. In Columbia Falls, state champion Taylor Gladeau returns to defend his 285-pound title.

In the pool, Whitefish’s girls are the two-time defending state champions and should once again be in the hunt with a pair of state champions returning, and the Bulldogs boys are led by one of the state’s best freestyle swimmers in Preston Ring.

Here’s a look at all of this winter’s teams:

Flathead’s Brendan Barnes competes against Glacier’s Tristan Little at the crosstown wrestling match at Glacier High School on Jan. 3, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Wrestling

FLATHEAD BRAVES

Head coach: Jeff Thompson (12th season)
2018-19 postseason: 7th at state
Key returners: Brendan Barnes, Sr., 138 lbs.; Fin Nadeau, So., 145; Tanner Russell, Sr., 170

The valley’s most decorated winter program reached its modern pinnacle in the 2017-18 season, winning the school’s second straight state title and the eighth in program history. Fourteen state qualifiers from a year ago are back this season, led by state runners-up Nadeau and Russell, and two-time state placer Barnes.

GLACIER WOLFPACK

Head coach: Ross Dankers (7th season)
2018-19 postseason: 13th at state
Key returners: Thomas Putnam, So., 103 lbs.; Cody Frost, Jr., 113

The Wolfpack qualified an impressive 17 wrestlers for the 2018-19 state tournament but walked away with only one state placer in now-graduated heavyweight Tre Krause. Frost claimed the Western AA divisional title at 113 pounds last year and won a pair of matches by fall at state.

COLUMBIA FALLS WILDCATS

Head coach: Jessie Schaeffer (14th season)
2018-19 postseason: 3rd at divisional; 5th at state
Key returners: Taylor Gladeau, Sr., 285 lbs.; Alec Knapton, Jr., 170

Gladeau is the valley’s only returning state champion and is looking to add a third straight top-three finish to his resume. Alongside Gladeau, the Wildcats are hoping for a larger supporting cast after finishing fifth in the state in 2018-19 despite qualifying only 11 wrestlers.

WHITEFISH BULLDOGS

Head coach: Danny Neff (1st season)
2018-19 postseason: 7th at divisional; 17th at state
Key returners: Nathan Sproul, Jr., 103 lbs.; Dakota Flannery, Sr., 132

Longtime coach Ryan Boyle stepped down after the 2018-19 season and gives way this year to former Bulldogs wrestler Danny Neff, who was previously part of Boyle’s coaching staff. Neff inherits a pair of fifth-place finishers from last season in Sproul and Flannery.

BIGFORK VIKINGS

Head coach: Shawn Hall (2nd season)
2018-19 postseason: Did not score at state
Key returner: Archie Brevik, Jr., 152 lbs.

The Vikings program returned after a more than 10-year hiatus in time for the 2013-14 season and the rebuilding operation is still ongoing for Hall and his staff. Brevik had a promising sophomore year, qualifying for the state tournament before being ousted in two matches.

Madysen Hoerner, center, throws a pass during a game against rival Whitefish on Jan. 10, 2019 at Whitefish High School. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Girls Basketball

FLATHEAD BRAVETTES

Head coach: Tricia Dean (4th season)
2018-19 record: 7-14 (2-10 Western AA)
2018-19 postseason: 1-2 at divisional
Key returners: Jenna Johnson, Sr., G; Emily Lembke, Sr., G

The Bravettes bring back their second-leading scorer in Johnson, who averaged better than 11 points per game and knocked in 44 3-pointers last regular season. But Flathead is desperately in need of another offensive weapon after averaging fewer than 35 points per game in Western AA action in 2018-19.

GLACIER WOLFPACK

Head coach: Amanda Cram (1st season)
2018-19 record: 15-10 (8-4 Western AA)
2018-19 postseason: 4th at divisional, 1-2 at state
Key returners: Aubrie Rademacher, Sr., F; Ellie Keller, Jr., G

First-year head coach Cram was an assistant under the previous two Wolfpack coaches and inherits a program that has been to three straight state tournaments. Rademacher, a second team all-conference pick last season, averaged eight points, four rebounds and two steals as a junior.

COLUMBIA FALLS WILDKATS

Head coach: Cary Finberg (9th season)
2018-19 record: 25-2 (9-1 Northwest A)
2018-19 postseason: 1st at divisional, 3rd at state
Key returners: LaKia Hill, Jr., G; Josie Windauer, Sr., F; Madysen Hoerner, Jr., F

Every year Finberg’s team loses talent and leadership, and yet every year the Wildkats find themselves back in the title hunt. Columbia Falls’ top two scorers from last season have graduated, but dynamic point guard Hill and scrappy soccer star Windauer were both all-conference a year ago.

WHITEFISH BULLDOGS

Head coach: Bob Bolam (2nd season)
2018-19 record: 4-16 (2-8 Northwest A)
2018-19 postseason: Did not qualify for divisional
Key returners: Hope Brown, Sr., F; Payton Kastella, Sr., G

Bolam coached for more than a decade at Mount Spokane High School in Washington and is still working to build a program with little recent success. Whitefish has not had a winning season since 2007-08, which is also the last time the Bulldogs were in the state tournament.

BIGFORK VALKYRIES

Head coach: Cortnee Gunlock (1st season)
2018-19 record: 12-10 (4-2 District 7B)
2018-19 postseason: 2-2 at divisional
Key returners: Ansleigh Edgerton, Sr., F; Izzy Santistevan, Sr., F

The Vals have a new but familiar face in charge this year as Gunlock officially assumes the head job after filling in intermittently the last two seasons. All-district standouts Edgerton and Santistevan give Bigfork a shot to not only return to the state tournament but make some noise while there.

Team manager Logan McMann shows off the Class B championship trophy after Bigfork defeated Shelby 60-56 at the Adams Center in Missoula on March 10, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Boys Basketball

FLATHEAD BRAVES

Head coach: Ross Gustafson (5th season)
2018-19 record: 6-15 (2-10 Western AA)
2018-19 postseason: 1-2 at divisional
Key returners: Gabe Adams, Jr., F/C; Tannen Beyl, Sr., F

It was a challenging 2018-19 season for the Braves, but Flathead is optimistic about a future built around one best big men in the conference in Adams, who averaged more than eight points and four rebounds per game as a sophomore. Beyl led last year’s team at more than five rebounds per game.

GLACIER WOLFPACK

Head coach: Mark Harkins (13th season)
2018-19 record: 5-15 (3-9 Western AA)
2018-19 postseason: 0-2 at divisional
Key returners: Drew Engellant, Sr., F; K.J. Johnson, Sr., G

Like their in-town rivals, the Wolfpack returns an ultra-talented big man in Engellant, who is coming off a season in which he averaged more than 10 points, six rebounds and two assists per game. Johnson provides balance on the outside after making more than 44 percent of his 3-pointers last year.

COLUMBIA FALLS WILDCATS

Head coach: Chris Finberg (4th season)
2018-19 record: 3-17 (1-9 Northwest A)
2018-19 postseason: Did not qualify for divisional
Key returners: Dillon Shipp, Sr., G; Danny Henjum, Sr., G

It has only been six seasons since the Wildcats won a state championship, but recent years have been tough on a program that once was among state’s best. Shipp was Columbia Falls’ second-leading scorer last season and will lead a team looking to make noise in a competitive Northwest A conference.

WHITEFISH BULLDOGS

Head coach: Scott Smith (2nd season)
2018-19 record: 15-9 (7-3 Northwest A)
2018-19 postseason: 1-2 at divisional
Key returners: Sam Menicke, Sr., F; Justin Conklin, Sr., G

The Bulldogs were a revelation a year ago, winning 13 more games than the prior season and challenging for a spot in the state tournament before falling just short. Whitefish must replace loads of production this year, however, although honorable mention all-conference forward Menicke does return.

BIGFORK VIKINGS

Head coach: John Hollow (1st season)
2018-19 record: 22-2 (6-0 District 7B)
2018-19 postseason: 1st at divisional, 1st at state
Key returners: Levi Taylor, So., G; Colton Thorness, Sr., F/C

No team will be harder to recognize than the Vikings, who graduated their top seven players from last year’s state title-winning team. Hollow, the former head coach at Helena High, took over from Sam Tudor this summer and inherits a program that has been one of the best in the state over the last decade.

Swimmers dive into the pool during a combined Columbia Falls and Whitefish practice at The Wave in Whitefish. Beacon file photo

Swimming

FLATHEAD/GLACIER

Head coach: Karen Bouda (1st season)
2018-19 state meet (boys): Flathead 9th, Glacier 10th
2018-19 state meet (girls): Glacier 8th, Flathead 11th
Key returner (boys): Alex Bertrand, Glacier, Sr.
Key returners (girls): Eden Flake, Glacier, So.; Lily Milner, Flathead, So.

Bouda — whose son, James, was a state champion for the Braves and now swims at the University of Wyoming — begins her tenure with promising youth on the girls side. Milner in particular could challenge for at least one state championship after finishing second in the 100- and 200-yard freestyle last season. The Flathead and Glacier teams train together but score separately at meets.

COLUMBIA FALLS/WHITEFISH

Head coach: Christian Ramsey (1st season)
2018-19 state meet (boys): Columbia Falls 4th, Whitefish 5th
2018-19 state meet (girls): Whitefish 1st, Columbia Falls 5th
Key returner (boys): Preston Ring, Whitefish, Sr.; Logan Botner, Whitefish, So.
Key returners (girls): Helena Kunz, Whitefish, Jr.; Ada Qunell, Whitefish, So.; Nia Hanson, Whitefish, So.

The Whitefish girls graduated a two-time state champion in Annie Sullivan and still figure to be in the hunt for a third straight title thanks to a deep lineup. Qunell won state titles in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley last year, and Kunz finished first in the 200 free. On the boys side, Ring won the two freestyle sprints (50 and 100) a year ago. Like in Kalispell, the two north valley schools train together but score separately in competition.

BIGFORK GIRLS

Head coach: Charlie Ball (7th season)
2018-19 postseason: Did not score at state
Key returners: Soraya Brevik, So.; Ashley Anderson, Sr.

Ball brought swimming to Bigfork in 2013 and has been at the helm of the self-funded program ever since. Brevik raced in the 100 and 200 freestyle at last year’s state meet while Anderson swam the 50 free, 500 free and was part of a pair of state relay teams.

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