Flathead and Glacier will test the waters of Western AA divisional girls basketball play for the first time this weekend with road games in Helena versus Helena High and Capital. The season thus far for both schools has been limited to nonconference foes.
Class A schools Columbia Falls, Libby, Polson and Whitefish have already waded into their Northwest A conference action as well as Bigfork and Eureka in District 7B of the Western Division.
What follows later for all eight schools are divisional tournaments in late February with state play for those qualifying in early March.
Glacier (4-1, 0-0)
Head coach Bill Sullivan, in his second year with the Wolfpack, saw his team start with a four-game win streak before dropping a road test at Post Falls, Idaho, last weekend.
“We have a pretty good nucleus back,” he said of his four returning starters.
“We have plenty of experience to certainly guide us this season.”
Those returning veterans are Ellie Stevens, a 5-foot-9 senior forward; Kali Gulick, a 6-2 junior center; Cadie Williams, a 5-4 senior guard; and Anna Schrade, a 5-10 senior guard.
Four players providing quality minutes on the court are Alivia Atlee, a 6-0 senior center; Aubrie Rademacher, a 5-11 sophomore forward; Bria Anderson, a 5-10 junior guard; and Raley Shirey, 6-1 junior center.
“I think we’ll continue to be solid defensively,” Sullivan said.
“We are much more balanced (offensively) this year ... not relying on one or two girls. Anyone can score.
“We have good chemistry,” he continued.
“They are buying into what we need to do to get better. We have a great attitude. They continue to work hard, day-in and day-out.”
Sullivan says the light game schedule to begin the season has been a blessing.
“Only four games before (the holiday) break,” he said.
“I don’t mind it. In practice you become better this time of the year. If you have too many games (too early), it doesn’t allow you to work on things.”
Flathead (1-5, 0-0)
Second year head coach Tricia Samson-Dean and the Bravettes will rely heavily on a strong defensive effort while the offense, a work in progress, takes time to catch up.
The lone returning starter is Mary Heaton, a 5-11 senior post.
Two girls who saw action a year ago and will be counted on to contribute in a hurry this season are Taylor Henley, a 6-0 junior forward, and Clara Vandenbosch, a 5-5 senior guard.
Three less-experienced players thrown into the mix for 2017-18 are Maddie Walter, a 5-5 junior guard; Kaysie Malmin, a 5-4 senior guard; and Emily Lembke, a 5-7 sophomore guard.
The Bravettes are without the services of Averie Olson. The 5-7 senior guard is currently out with a knee injury, but hopes to return.
“She would have really helped us,” Samson-Dean said of Olson.
“She was one of the quickest ones on defense for sure.”
Vandenbosch and Heaton are currently carrying the offensive load, both averaging right around 11 points per game.
“They have been steady scorers,” Samson-Dean said of her duo.
She said the goal each game for FHS is to limit the opposition to “around 40 points. That is where we want to be. Our defense has been pretty good this season. We’re just struggling on offense right now.”
The team picked up a much needed victory last week, topping Whitefish in overtime.
“We’re working to build the program back up,” Samson-Dean said.
“Last year we made some progress, had some big wins for the program. We had five seniors. That (losing them to graduation) took a big hit on the program (for this year).
Columbia Falls (7-1, 2-0)
It’s been an amazing run for head coach Cary Finberg, now in his seventh year with the girls, and the Wildkats.
There has been five straight state tournament appearances with the team finishing third, third, second and first the last four years.
The Wildkats finished 23-1 last season, which included a 73-50 romp in the Class A title game over Hardin at the Butte Civic Center.
“This team is trying to do something harder than last year’s team,” Finberg said.
“They will try to win state championships back to back. This team has the ability to get there.”
Columbia Falls has just one returning starter back in senior Dani Douglas.
“I think she’s one of the best point guards in the state,” Finberg said.
“She brings a lot of savvy, ability to score and push the ball. She is a great talent. She has done well for us the last two years.”
Douglas is joined on the court by two talented juniors — Ryley Kehr, a 5-11 guard, and Trista Cowan, a 5-9 forward, and senior Hannah Gedlaman, a 5-10 forward.
“Ryley brings the ability to shoot the ball and run the floor,” Finberg said.
“Her versatility makes her tough.
“Gedlaman has a non-stop motor. She is very good offensively and defensively.”
She is averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds per game. Kehr is averaging 15 points.
“Cowan, from the middle of last year to now, is one of our most improved players,” Finberg said.
“A very good rebounder. She knows how to score down low.”
Cowan is averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds per outing.
Libby (4-4, 2-2)
Wally Winslow, who directed the Libby boys for 16 seasons, is in his second year with the girls.
“The big issue for us right now is health,” Winslow said.
“We’ve had health issues ... knees, ankles ... hopefully we will get everybody healthy at the same time.”
The Loggers have three talented veteran starters back in Shannon Reny, a 6-0 senior forward/center; Jayden Winslow, a 5-10 junior guard/forward; and Khalyn Hageness, a 5-8 senior, forward.
Reny, a three-year starter, is averaging 16.9 points per game to 13.1 for Winslow, also a three-year starter.
Reny led the Loggers in scoring last season.
While Reny and Winslow are the main offensive weapons, Alli Collins, a 5-4 junior guard; Sammee Bradeen, a 5-8 junior forward; Brooklyn Rainer, a 6-2 senior center; Emma Gruber, a 5-1 junior guard; and Linsey Walker, a 5-2 junior guard, are all logging valuable court time as role players.
“We are doing a good job of executing (on offense),” coach Winslow said.
“We have the abilty to score if we are efficient. We have people who can play inside, people who can shoot from the perimenter. If we can get everything going the same night, we can put some points on the board.”
Coach Winslow said defensively there is a “good blend of size and quickness. On any given night, that comes and goes. Consistency is the big thing.”
Polson (0-8, 0-4)
It’s been a challenging start for first-year coach Juan Perez and his players.
“We’re having this be a building year, maybe a rebuilding year,” Perez said.
“We’re competing in every game. We’ve lost a couple of heartbreakers, lost to Corvallis by 10. We have competed with all the teams, but we fall off in the second half.”
Perez, who has 15 years head coaching experience with the Salish Kootenai College women’s basketball team, has two returning starters in seniors Quinn Motichka, a 5-8 wing, and Kaelyn Smith, a 5-7 guard.
Olivia Perez, a 5-10 junior post, saw plenty of varsity action a year ago.
The team’s starting point guard is Jaycee Frydelund, a 5-6 junior transfer from Cut Bank.
Three other girls who have been contributing are Alex Pierre, a 5-10 junior post; Marina Mayorga, a 5-5 senior wing/post; and Natasha Gravelle, a 5-5 junior guard.
Frydelund has been the team leading scorer. She has a season high of 23 points.
“They have showed me that they have heart, want to compete, learn” coach Perez said.
“The one thing I’m trying to stress is that we do this as a team, not as individuals. They have bought into the team concept. They support each other. We’ll keep building on what we’ve been working on.”
Whitefish (1-8, 1-3)
The Bulldogs were just an overtime away from picking up their second victory of the season last week at Class AA Flathead.
Freshman Ashton Ramsey hit two free throw to force the extra session, but the Bulldogs were outscored 11-7 after that in a four-point loss.
Whitefish’s victory was a 52-38 win at Polson with Marlee Bender scoring 20 points back in December.
Last year, Whitefish did not win a game during the regular season, but posted a win at divisionals.
“We don’t have many wins, but our game performance this year is way ahead of last year,” Whitefish coach Ben Johnson said.
“Our goal is to be more consistent,” he continued. “We play one or two great quarters of defense (then it drops off). We’re hoping to be playing solid defense all the way through the fourth quarter.”
Anissa Brown, a 5-8 senior forward, is the team’s lone returning starter.
Girls back with limited varsity experience are Bender, a 6-1 junior post; Payton Kastella, a 5-7 sophomore shooting guard; and Hope Brown, 5-9, sophomore, power forward.
“Our youth is shooting us in the foot right now,” Johnson said.
“We only have 12 girls in the whole program.”
This is Johnson’s third season as head coach.
“We have a lot of desire, we don’t quit no matter if we are down by 10 points or 20, we keep playing, trying to fight.
“Their statement this year is that last year they were getting beat by 35 or 40 points. That’s not happening this year.
“More of a team concept this year, balanced scoring sometimes, but the offense is struggling a little bit yet,” he added.
Bigfork (7-1, 2-0)
Head coach Jami Grende and the Valkyries are off to an impressive start.
The loss was by five points to Class A power Columbia Falls.
The Vals have a veteran squad on the court with six returning starters — Jaime Berg, senior, forward/center; Abby Ellison, senior, forward; Shae Anderson, senior, guard; Ellie Berreth, senior, guard; Rakiah Grende, junior, guard; and Abby Lembke, senior, guard.
“We alternate six girls,” coach Grende, in her fourth season, said.
“Berg has been a starter since her sophomore year.”
Berg has already had two big offensive nights, scoring 29 and 30 points.
The other five have also been, or are capable of scoring, in double figures at one time or another.
“We are not a one-person team,” coach Grende is quick to note.
“She (Berg) has a great supporting cast. We have girls who take care of the ball, feed her ball and play defense.”
Bigfork was one game away from state last year, losing a challenge game to Florence. The Vals qualified for state two years in a row before that.
Jordan Nelson, a junior forward, will also contribute along with Heidi Schneller, a junior guard.
“Very athletic, quick,” coach Grende said of Nelson.
“She can cause some havoc on the press.
“Fun to watch,” she continued.
“All over the court. She will be a huge factor next year.”
This is Schneller’s first season with the Vals varsity after starring with the Flathead Valley Homeschool.
“Depth, I can go five-in and five-out and be comfortable with it,” coach Grende said.
“The chemistry, they have the experience,” are all positives.
“They are hard workers and have bought into what we have tried to accomplish the last three years. As a result, they have found success.
“We have a lot to prove on the offensive end (this year). Our defense is so chaotic, because it is so hard to flip that switch and play on the offense end. If we can make that adjustment this year, we will be extremely successful. We have a team that can go to state and do well. We have some great teams in our division, so that will make it difficult. It will be a dogfight like it is every year.”
Eureka (3-5, 1-1)
The Lions have a new coach in Ryan Holder, but a wealth of experience thanks to four returning starters — Sienna Utter, a 5-8 junior guard; Liz Pacella, a 5-4 senior point guard; Erryn Thier, a 5-9 senior forward; and Maggie Graves, a 5-10 sophomore post.
Utter led the team in scoring last year and is the team’s No. 1 weapon again this season, averaging 15 points per game.
Thier has helped out on the offensive side with some double-digit scoring performances.
Graves continues to shine with her rebounding skills while Pacella, according to Holder, is the leader.
“She controls the game, plays good defense.”
Cassie Hammack, a 5-10 sophomore forward; Karlee Frost, a 5-8 sophomore guard; Megan Hanson, a 5-8 sophomore guard; and Avory Escobar, a 5-9 sophomore forward, have been logging valuable minutes on the court.
“It’s a pretty good group,” Holder said.
“It’s been a murderers’ row to start (the season). We had to play Bigfork and Florence, were beaten by Bonners Ferry, who is 8-1, and lost to a good Deer Lodge team and Libby. We are doing a lot of things well, we just had a tough schedule to start off with. We did a lot of good things even in those losses.”
Holder said his hard-working crew has shown improvement each time out.
“They will be dangerous by the end of the season if they continue to work hard,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of height, but we make up for that with our speed.”
Eureka’s last trip to state was in 2004.
“I believe so,” Holder said of his team being capable of qualifying for state.
“Right now Florence and Bigfork are the two top teams in the division. We proved we can play with them.”