The Columbia Falls girls basketball team entered three days of conference matchups as heavy favorites against each opponent.
In succession, Wildkats dispatched Polson (60-11), Whitefish (54-34) and Libby (61-11), outscoring their competition 175-56.
The Wildkats (12-0, 7-0 Northwest A) are undefeated in both conference and overall play this season and are playing with a chip on their shoulder.
“After last year especially, we want to go back to state because it was terrible,” junior guard Maddie Robison said before the Feb. 4 game against Polson.
During the 2019-2020 season, Columbia Falls had a strong season despite fielding a young roster with only three seniors. The Wildkats’ 16-2 regular season record was only marred by two losses to Browning, setting the team up to be right in the mix at the Class A state tournament.
At the divisional tournament, however, the Wildkats had a hiccup.
“We just put together our two worst games of the year at the worst time,” 10th-year head coach Cary Finberg said. “Upsets happen at tournaments. Fortunately for us, it hasn’t happened a lot over the past 20 years. But it’s just a reminder that if you do not play well come tournament time, you’re going to get beat, and that’s what happened to us.”
All dynasties can have a hitch in their stride, and for the Wildkats that was last year. After seven straight appearances at the state tournament — the last six of which resulted in the girls hoisting a state trophy for a top-three finish — Columbia Falls missed out on the Big Dance.
Finberg has spent a quarter of a century cementing Columbia Falls as one of the preeminent basketball programs in Class A.
As a locally raised member of a basketball-crazed family, Finberg returned to his hometown in 1996 after a career playing at the University of Montana Western to take over coaching duties for the Wildcats boys team.
By 2011, the Wildcats had collected four state titles and Finberg, never one to back down from a challenge, started pulling double duty as the newly appointed coach of the girls program. His success with the boys immediately translated over to the girls, and the Wildkats joined the upper echelon of Class A powerhouses.
Since the start of the 2013-2014 season, the Wildkats are 164-19 (an .896 winning percentage) and notched six straight top three finishes at the state tournament, including a state title in 2017.
Members of the incoming freshman class who joined the team in the spotlight following that state title included now-seniors Madysen Hoerner, Peyton Rhodes, Hannah Schweikert, Lauren Falkner and LaKia Hill.
“Now being seniors and leaders, it’s the best feeling in the world, but also the hardest, because I know my team depends on me every game,” LaKia Hill said. “Our leadership with the seniors this year is better than it’s been in the last four years, and I think that’s the reason we’re playing so well this year.”
The Wildkats lost just one starter from last year’s lineup, second-team all-conference player Josie Windauer, and is composed of a strong cohort of upperclassmen who have spent years together on the hardwood, absorbing as much of Finberg’s wisdom and competitive acumen as possible.
“Last year we had hiccups because our defensive intensity wasn’t there,” Hill said. “Mentally, we all told ourselves that if we’re going turn it around this year, it has to start on the defensive side of the court and Finny’s really nailed that into our heads. Our defense is just together this year and it’s made the biggest difference.”
In 12 games so far this season, the Wildkats have held their opponents to just 32 points on average. Three times, including twice last weekend, the Wildkats kept that number under 20.
“Defensively, we’re playing pretty consistently right now,” Finberg said. “It’s just a matter of cleaning up and improving the solid, consistent parts of our game. We’ve got a month.”
“We always say this is the year,” Robison said. “But this is the year I’ve felt it the most. This is the best chemistry our team has ever had and on the court everything just feels natural.”
The Wildkats can’t turn all their attention to the state tournament just yet — they have four games left in the regular season and the divisional tournament to play.
“Before we can worry about the other teams in the state, we have to worry about the teams in the western divisional.” Finberg said. “Our conference, I think, is better overall than it’s been in the last two years, and we have to make sure we play our best basketball this year at the right time.”
Like all of Finberg’s ideals, this one has been fully embraced by his athletes.
“Everyone knows their role this year, everyone’s taken the extra step to make sure we get there,” Hill said. “Our focus is getting to divisionals, winning our first game, getting to that championship and taking home the divisional title.”
After last year left a “crappy taste in our mouth,” according to Hill, the Wildkats are ready to return to the biggest stage and prove last year was a mere snag in their dynasty.
“It’s in the back of all our minds and we think about it every day,” Robison said. “It’s always about coming back from last year and just being the best we can be.”
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