Columbia Falls has been here before.
Expectations are nothing new for a girls basketball team that has lost six games in the last three seasons combined.
The Wildkats have placed in the top three in the state each year in that stretch, and with a team comprised of players with multiple years of experience, are the favorite entering this weekend’s Class A state tournament.
Columbia Falls looks every part of the favorite, too. The Wildkats aren’t just tall — they have six girls on the roster listed at 5-foot-10 or taller — they can shoot, defend and dribble at nearly every position. The Wildkats have dominated most of their competition this season, their only loss coming to Class AA Missoula Sentinel, the defending state champs and top-ranked team in the state’s top class.
Wildkats head coach Cary Finberg called this season’s starting lineup the most talented he’s had in his six years as girls coach.
But, these seasons have come before. Columbia Falls carried the state’s longest winning streak into the state tournament two years ago and lost in the first round, rebounding to finish in third place. Last season, it had most of the same parts it does now and was edged in the championship game.
Both of those losses came at the hands of Butte Central, which sits on the same side of the bracket as Columbia Falls and is playing this weekend in its hometown.
While the Wildkats have beaten the Maroons twice this season, including in last week’s Western A tournament, they may have to do so one more time to earn their first state title since 1983.
“They’re good,” Finberg said. “They have three all state guards and they’re talented.
“I don’t care who you are, last year they were 24-0. For you to go through a whole season undefeated, you have to have some talent. They have talent, they have experience. We respect what they’ve done and by no means are we thinking they’re an easy out.”
If Columbia Falls is able to get through Laurel in the first round and Havre or Butte Central in the second round, there will likely be another big test waiting in the championship game. At the top of the other side of the bracket is Hardin, which carries an 18-game winning streak into the tournament. Corvallis and Belgrade have also had some big wins this year.
The Wildkats depth and experience, in addition to the talent of the starting five, should be its biggest key this weekend.
“I think it’s huge,” Finberg said.
“You can’t teach experience. You can’t coach that stuff. They know the routine, they’ve been here before. Simple stuff on how to prepare yourself watching film, how to prepare yourself with the game plan, they’ve been through it. That’s a huge factor for us and that’s part of the reason our confidence is really high.”
There’s a championship feel to this team, driven by players who have won or competed for state championships in other sports. This season’s Wildkat volleyball team, featuring much of the same players, overwhelmed its giant preseason expectations to win a second straight state title and complete an undefeated season. Others still, were a part of the Columbia Falls soccer team that has competed for titles the last few years.
That winning work ethic has transferred to the basketball court, as well.
“There’s no secret to why we’ve been here,” Finberg said. “The girls have put a ton of time in. They’ve worked to get to this point.”
Yet, should they fall short again, Finberg said the team has the season in perspective.
“The ultimate goal is winning,” he said. “Every team that is here wants to win the state championship. They’re all here for a reason. Only one team’s going to get away with that.
One game doesn’t define your season. You hope you can put together the three best games of anybody.”