There was nothing left for Cary Finberg to prove when the girls basketball coaching job came open at his alma mater, Columbia Falls High School, in 2011.
The youngest of four siblings in a basketball-mad family, the relentlessly intense Finberg returned to his hometown after a Hall of Fame playing career at the University of Montana Western and was handed the reins to the Wildcats boys team in 1996, tasked with restoring the program to its former glory and getting the team over the hump to win a state championship for the first time.
In his seventh season he did just that, bringing a Class A state title to Columbia Falls in 2003. And then he did it four more times.
By the time Finberg and the Wildcats won the 2011 title, the school’s fourth in nine seasons, Columbia Falls was entrenched as the preeminent boys basketball program in Class A and their coach’s acumen was unquestioned. Finberg had built a dynasty poised to feed itself indefinitely, with one generation of state champions inspiring and teaching the next class the ways of winning basketball.
Then came the spring of 2011, when Dan Fairbank stepped down as the head coach of the Columbia Falls girls hoops team and Finberg’s eldest daughter, Ciera, was preparing to enter high school and join the basketball program. It was another potential challenge for a coach who never stops competing, so Finberg applied for the job and, despite almost no precedent existing in the state, particularly at a school the size of Columbia Falls, he was anointed head coach of both basketball programs simultaneously.
It was, of course, a resounding success.
Nine years later, and five years after relinquishing the boys job, the Columbia Falls Wildkats are one of the state’s elite girls basketball programs, a staple of the Class A state tournament and a team with few peers in recent history. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Wildkats are 148-16 (a .902 winning percentage), and each of the last six years has ended with the Columbia Falls girls hoisting a state trophy that comes with a top-three finish, including a state title in 2017.
In 28 seasons as a high school coach, a tenure that spans 24 school years, Finberg has won 472 games, six state championships, and finished third or better in the state tournament at least 16 times. Regardless of what happens the rest of his career, Finberg will go down as one of the greatest basketball coaches the state of Montana has ever seen. But that doesn’t mean Finberg or the Wildkats are done competing.
This year’s Columbia Falls team is 12-1 through three-quarters of the season and coming off an impressive weekend in which they blew out rival Whitefish 66-32 on Jan. 31 and stomped Corvallis 59-36 one day later. The Wildkats have won five straight since their lone loss of the year, a 59-58 setback against Browning on Jan. 16, and despite fielding a young roster with only three seniors, Columbia Falls is once again expected to be right in the mix at the Class A state tournament next month.
Their success in 2019-20 is attributable to many of the same things that have always made Finberg’s teams great. The Wildkats are disciplined, tactically sound and imbued with a competitive fire that emanates from their head coach, but the secret to molding those traits is nothing complicated.
“I don’t know other than just flat-out, old-fashioned time and hard work,” Columbia Falls Activities Director Troy Bowman said. “He spends time with his younger coaches, developing kids, and lo and behold, by the end of their freshman season those kids are showing some success. And now here they are vying for another state trophy.”
Finberg’s work ethic is legendary both in-season and during the offseason, when he travels to every available coaching clinic and leads every open gym. While he coached both basketball teams at Columbia Falls, he told the Beacon he would spend upwards of six hours in the gym every day, but to hear him tell it, there is no place the coach would rather be.
“I like competing, and winning, obviously, is very important,” Finberg said. “I love the game of basketball. I love being in the gym. Working with these kids and watching them grow and develop into high school, it’s rewarding.”
Those hours in the gym combined with lessons learned during his playing days, his time watching his older siblings, Craig and Cathy, during their own standout high school and college careers, and a natural feel for the game give Finberg another advantage. He is one of the premier in-game tacticians in the business.
“I always said basketball coaches get too many timeouts but (Finberg’s are) well spent,” Bowman said. “I’ve had so many coaches who are just in awe of how he can see things that others can’t.”
On the sidelines, as he studies and prepares his next move, Finberg’s competitive side also shows through. He rarely has a smile on his face once the ball is tipped, but his reputation and work ethic make it easy for his players to buy in, and those who spend several years with Finberg end up crediting his drive for pushing them to the heights they eventually reach.
“When he walks onto the court and it’s game time, he takes everything pretty seriously,” junior point guard LaKia Hill said. “The biggest thing is he’s just a competitor. He cares and he wants to win just as much as his players.”
Hill, who has played significant minutes for the Wildkats since her freshman year, says Finberg’s wife, Angie, jokingly calls her one of their first grandkids since her dad, former professional bull rider Beau Hill, played for Finberg’s C-Falls boys teams in the late 1990s. The polished, competitive and confident LaKia Hill has stepped into a leadership role for Columbia Falls this season after the graduation of all-state standouts Ryley Kehr and Trista Cowan, and with a number of new faces now in different roles, Hill said it took this year’s team a little while to find its groove.
“Our team this year is a lot different than last year,” Hill said. “We’re a lot quicker, we can be scrappy … and we’re finally starting to get where we want to be. We’re pretty young but we’re finally starting to get everything in place.”
Hill was named second team all-conference a year ago, as was Josie Windauer, who is enjoying her best season on the hardwood as a senior. Columbia Falls’ all-time leading scorer on the soccer pitch and a future University of Montana soccer player, Windauer came into high school with little basketball experience but has turned herself into one of the Wildkats’ best players this season. In some ways, Windauer’s ascension is just the kind of story that has played out over and over again during her coach’s career.
“Josie came into high school not really being a basketball player, so to speak,” Finberg said. “But her work ethic, her competitiveness, her willingness to be coached, she has turned herself into a basketball player.”
Windauer has developed as a passer this year, Finberg said, to add another dimension to her game when defenses collapse inside. That’s allowed shooters like Maddie Robison, a sophomore, and Hannah Schweikert, a junior, to make teams pay from the perimeter. The result is a team that is hard for opponents to match up against.
“We’ve got a group of kids that check all the boxes of what you’d want on a basketball team,” Finberg said. “Any team would want more of everything, but this year’s team has a good mix.”
The Wildkats have five games remaining in conference play, including a Feb. 15 showdown at Browning that could determine the regular season champion, before the divisional tournament at the end of this month and the Class A state tournament in Billings, March 12-14.
Until that day, Finberg and the Wildkats will be toiling away in the gym, preparing to prove themselves once again to a state that needs no more convincing, and ready to write the next chapter in a dynasty that shows no signs of letting up.
“I’ve set the guidelines where if you can fit your role the team success is going to follow,” Finberg said. “I think once you’ve set that standard for a year or two, the kids after that, they want to continually win. They want to follow that.”