As the MHSA boys basketball season approaches its peak, Flathead and Bigfork appear primed to make a run at the ultimate prize — a state championship.
Both teams have title potential thanks to a trio of stars and talented role players around them.
Meanwhile, Polson and Libby are prepared to make runs at the Northwest A conference title and a possible appearance at the state tournament.
Still other squads, such as Glacier, Columbia Falls and Eureka, are looking to hit their strides after slow starts to the season.
Flathead (4-2, 0-0)
Flathead’s stay at last year’s state tournament was a short one.
Coming off a two-and-out performance, the Braves will be looking for more this year on the shoulders of a talented trio of seniors — Tyler Johnson, Eric Seaman and Sam Elliott.
But before Flathead can worry about its state potential, it first has to navigate the brutal Class AA Western conference, starting with today’s conference opener versus Helena Capital.
“There’s some really talented teams (in the Western conference),” third-year Flathead coach Ross Gustafson said. “We know it’s going to be competitive, but we have a lot of confidence in ourselves.
“Every game we play, we expect to win.”
Flathead is off to a 4-2 start in nonconference play, with the lone in-state loss coming against Great Falls High in the second game of the season.
The biggest factor in the team’s solid play thus far, Gustafson said, is experience. The aforementioned three seniors, all returning starters, have led the way.
The team’s leading scorer last year at 14.8 points per game, Johnson has been even better this year. He has upped his average to more than 20 points per game while raising his shooting percentage by nearly six percent.
Elliott has provided the Braves with a strong second option on offense with 14.2 points and nine rebounds per contest. Like Johnson and Elliott, Seaman also has improved statistically. He currently leads Flathead with 5.2 assists per game.
“It’s showing right now on the court, for sure,” Gustafson said of his squad’s experience.
An area Gustafson said his team still needs to improve in if it’s to reach its lofty goals is on defense, especially in the halfcourt.
“We’re executing 85 percent of the time, and that will win you a lot of ballgames,” Gustafson said. “But we have high expectations. We want to do well at state, and that’s going to take executing 95 percent of the time or better.”
Glacier (1-4, 0-0)
Mark Harkins knows he can’t replace Jaxen Hashley and Tadan Gilman, last season’s two leading scorers who helped carry Glacier to a state championship.
The veteran coach is wise enough to know not to waste time on such futile matters.
“My philosophy is you don’t replace guys,” said Harkins, who’s now in his 11th season at the helm at Glacier. “You see what you got, and you mold together what you can. For me to ask a kid to be Jaxen Hashley, that’s not fair.”
Harkins does have two starters back from his state title team, guards Caden Harkins and Brec Rademacher, and they’ve led the way early this year for a Glacier team still trying to find its way.
The offense has been especially troublesome in its first five games, but coach Harkins said he expects improvement as the team becomes more comfortable with its new offensive scheme, one that is centered more on the perimeter than the post.
Rademacher is the only player averaging double figures with 10.5 points per game. Caden Harkins, Collin Kazmier and Kody Jarvis have all emerged as additional offensive threats.
Coach Harkins is also encouraged by the amount of players contributing this season.
“We have great depth,” he said. “We go 10, 11, 12 deep.”
Despite its early-season struggles, Harkins said he expects to see continuous improvement throughout conference play as his team acclimates to the scheme and each other.
While the faces might have changed, the expectations have not.
“My expectations are very high for this club,” Harkins said. “I do think they have a lot of talent and can do great things. I keep going back to that word — chemistry — but we have to find that chemistry and find the kids that are playing well together and feeding off each other.”
Polson (5-4, 3-1)
Browning may be the favorite to win the Northwest A, but Polson doesn’t plan on letting the Indians run away with the conference easily.
“We’re right in the middle of things,” fourth-year Polson head coach Randy Kelley said. “We’ll all be chasing Browning, but it’s going to be a dogfight at the district tournament.”
The Pirates are off to a 5-4 start, but have been especially good in conference play thus far, accumulating a 3-1 record. The lone conference loss was to Browning, which is currently undefeated in conference play.
Polson returned no starters from last year’s team, but a plethora of players have stepped up to fill the voids all over the floor.
Six-foot-3 senior post Shade Main leads the team in scoring at 15 points per game, and junior Connor Lanier has tallied around 13 points.
The Pirates have been forced to rely on a strong corps of younger players, too, and junior Robin Erickson and sophomores Trevor Schultz and Bo Kelley have proven themselves up to the task.
Coach Kelley said his team’s offense has improved since the beginning of the season, and he’s hoping for similar progress on the other end of the floor.
“We just want to progress and get better with every game, and I see this team doing that,” he said. “So when it comes to early February, we want to be kind of clicking on defense and, offensively, attacking the hoop and doing the things that we have to do.”
Libby (5-3, 2-2)
With just one returning starter from last year’s team, fourth-year head coach Josh Bean had little clue what to expect when his Libby team hit the hardwood this year.
He’s been pleasantly surprised with his squad’s early-season performance, one that has yielded a 5-3 record overall and a 2-2 record in the Northwest A conference.
“I’ve been really impressed with the effort we’ve had,” Bean said.
Ryggs Johnston, the lone returning starter, has picked up right where he left out as the team’s leading scorer.
The 6-foot-4 shooting guard has scored 20 or more points in half of Libby’s games, including a 36-point outburst versus Stevensville.
Seniors Brian Peck, Nik Jones and Logan Christianson have all contributed for the Loggers, while junior JJ Davis has provided an offensive spark.
Bean has been especially pleased with his team’s work in offensive transition.
“We’ve got a bunch of people that are pretty fast and run,” he said.
Bean said his team’s goal is “to put ourselves into a good position by our play in conference in order to be successful in the divisional tournament.
“Browning is the most talented team in the conference. They’ve showed it so far,” he added.
“After that, everybody else is jammed together. It’s a fight night in and night out in conference.”
Columbia Falls (2-8, 1-3)
Columbia Falls hasn’t gotten off to the start head coach Chris Finberg envisioned in his second season on the job.
The Wildcats are 1-8 overall so far, including a 0-3 mark in Northwest A conference play.
Despite his team’s record, Finberg has seen positives in his team’s play against a tough schedule and hopes the new year will bring a change in results.
“We just have to worry about continuing to get better towards the end of the season,” Finberg said. “They haven’t quit on anything. They’re here to get better. They’re working hard.”
Seniors Austin Green and Matthew Morrison have helped lead the team this season as returning starters. Quintin Schriver, who did not start but played extensive minutes last year, has received even more playing time this season, coming on strong of late.
“There’s no experience like game experience, and those three have it,” Finberg said. “They’re leading us.”
Finberg expects a boost later this month when Glacier transfer Tucker Salmonsen becomes eligible.
“I hope our confidence isn’t shaken,” Finberg said of his squad’s slow start. “Hopefully, we can get back to playing with some confidence, playing with a little swagger.”
Whitefish (3-7, 1-4)
Whitefish hung tough with Class AA Flathead in a road game earlier this month, but the Bulldogs have had a rough go of Northwest A conference play thus far.
There have been some close calls, but the young team — Whitefish has just three seniors — has yet to find its way over the hump.
“We’ve had some growing pains lately,” Whitefish head coach Sean Duff said after the Flathead loss. “We’ve still got a lot of things to work on.”
Six-foot-4 junior Lee Walburn has served as the main scoring threat. He poured in 24 points in a narrow Northwest A loss to Browning and also led the way against Flathead, scoring 14.
Bigfork (9-0, 5-0)
Few teams in Montana are capable of scoring in spurts like Bigfork can.
The Vikings’ quick-strike ability, along with its experience and depth, is among the reasons why they are one of the favorites to compete for the Class B state championship this season despite missing out on the state tournament altogether last year.
“Our goal is definitely (to qualify for) state,” fourth-year Bigfork head coach Sam Tudor said. “We know that the West is as talented as it ever has been. So we know it’s a lofty goal, but we’re ready to aim for it and hit it. Past that, I think that were we to get to state, we’d definitely want to perform (well).”
While 3-point shooting is something Tudor mentioned he’d still like his team to improve, Bigfork has had little issue putting the ball in the basket.
Beau Santistevan, Anders Epperly and Logan Gilliard lead the balanced offense, each averaging 12.9 points per game.
“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Tudor said. “It definitely helps having some senior leadership out there, too.”
Santistevan, Logan Taylor and Chase Chappuis have served as those senior leaders.
Bigfork returned its entire lineup this season, as there were no seniors on the team that last year just missed out on state due to a pair of narrow losses in the divisional.
After a 8-0 start that includes a 4-0 conference record, the Vikings are motivated by the thought of suffering the same fate again.
“It was a fine line between getting there (and missing out),” Tudor said. “It wasn’t like we absolutely had no business at state last year. We just fell short, and that’s definitely one thing we’re going to try to avoid this year.”
Eureka (1-6, 0-2)
Eureka began this season with a clean slate in more ways than one.
Spencer Sartori took over as head coach, but he’s had little experience to work with because the Lions did not return any starters.
Thus, the season has been one of rebuilding, as evidenced by Eureka’s 1-6 record and 0-2 mark in conference play. But Sartori has been encouraged by one quality of his team.
“The work ethic is there,” he said. “Whether we’re digging ourselves out of a big hole or battling for a win, it doesn’t matter.
“That’s kind of the big bright spot for our team.”
Colton Cooper was one of few returners who played meaningful minutes a year ago, and he joins Quade Anderson and AJ Pacella as players with double-digit scoring averages.
Eureka has dropped several heartbreakers early in the season, and Sartori said the margin between his team’s current record and a much better one is slim.
“Whether it be holding box-outs for long enough or meeting passes or whatever it might be, we need to iron out small details so games can actually be a little bit more manageable for us,” he said.
The Lions’ objective for the rest of the season is just that — to make games more manageable.
“Narrowing the gap in the scores against teams that we’ve played already is kind of our short-term goal right now,” Sartori said. “Improving game by game and practice by practice. That way, we’re better than we were the day before.”