Bigfork Valkyries Seek Championship Repeat as Class A Team

Having notched a Class B championship last year, the Valkyries picked up right where they left off this season against stronger competition

By Micah Drew
Braeden Gunlock of the Bigfork Valkyries takes a shot against the Troy Lady Trojans defense in Bigfork on Feb. 2, 2023. Bigfork won 98-18. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After hanging the first Class B girls basketball state championship banner in the Bigfork gym last March, the Valkyries are poised to become the first team in school history to add a banner denoting a Class A championship after it moved up in classification at the beginning the school year. It would also be the first time a high school team won back-to-back championships in different classifications.

Following a dominant final season in Class B, which saw the Valkyries outscore their opponents by an average of 54 points per game, the team rode that momentum into Class A barely losing a step.   

While the wins haven’t been quite as easy as against exclusively Class B opponents, the Valkyries have showed they can match up against anyone who takes the court with them. The only loss this year came during the season opener — an overtime 2-point downer from Frenchtown. Since then, it’s been a 17-game win streak boosting the Valkyries to the top of Class A, with the Western Divisional tournament on deck to establish seeding for the state tournament in March.

“I did not think we would be ranked first for at least half the season this year. I did not want that this year, but we’re very proud of it. Honestly, we feel very respected,” head coach Cortnee Gunlock said. “We knew we could play at this level last year and so coming in and doing what we’re doing and getting better is all we’ve wanted for the season.”

Gunlock said that while there were some questions about how the team would adapt to the new level of competition, she expected the team to come out swinging like they did.

Bigfork Valkyries’ head coach Courtney Gunlock huddles with her team in at their home court on Feb. 2, 2023. Bigfork won 98-18. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“Our three captains have played basketball together since third grade, so they know how to play this game, how to play with each other and how to lead this team,” she said. “We lost some height on the team and we lost some depth, but we figured out how to adapt to that.”

The three Valkyries captains — Gunlock’s junior and sophomore daughters Braeden and Paeten, and junior Ava Davey — are all among the top ranked players in the state, and propel the team’s aggressive offense and meticulous defense.

Braeden has 316 points to her name this season, the second most in Class A, and leads in rebounds with an average 9.8 per game. Paeten and Braeden are ranked no. 2 and no. 3 in steals, while Davey has nailed 56% of her shots.

Ava Davey, Bigfork High School basketball player. March 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“It honestly doesn’t feel like there’s been much of a difference between Class B and Class A,” Braeden said after a recent practice. “We still play the same kind of basketball, but I’d say there’s a lot more atmosphere in the games and our opponents are all a little more competitive. It all just makes us play better basketball.”

Junior Davey has embraced her leadership role, which has added a different dimension to the team’s dynamic this year.

“We have a lot of younger girls coming with us this year, so there’s been a lot of teaching and helping support them and show them what kind of team we are,” Davey said. “I’ve definitely had to step up this year, but I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”

Starting about an hour after the Valkyries won last year’s championship, the returning team members began to consider what it would take to hoist the first-place trophy again, according to Paeten.

“Each person had the same goal at the beginning of the year, and that was to win state,” Paeten said. “That’s been the focus from day one and everyone’s on board with that. This is not a team that likes to lose.”

Even with their record, the Valkyries don’t have an easy path to the state championship. There’s the divisional tournament, which will advance the top four teams to state and includes a likely rematch against Frenchtown. Assuming they advance, the state championship tournament is likely to have the rare distinction of including two defending champion teams — Bigfork and Havre, which has won the last three Class A titles.

Currently, however, Havre isn’t among the top contenders for the title. Miles City (16-2) topped Havre (14-3) in the Northeast Conference, while Billings Central (17-1) and Frenchtown (17-1) won their respective conferences as well. Each team will be looking for their shot to take down the upstarts from Bigfork.

“We’ve got a target on our back, just like last year, everyone is going to try something different to defeat us,” Gunlock told her team after a recent practice. “But if you just keep working hard, keep coming to practice with this level of effort, then we’ll be exactly the team we need to be when it matters.”

The Class A Divisional tournament will take place Feb. 22-24 at the Butte Civic Center.

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