You can call it a routine or just say expectations are always met, but either way Columbia Falls figures to be there regardless when it comes state tournament time for Class A girls basketball.
The Wildkats are in Great Falls this week for another season-ending tournament, which begins today at Four Seasons Arena, with hopes of adding more hardware to the school’s trophy case.
Columbia Falls is riding a 12-game winning streak, is coming off district and divisional tournament titles and owns a 22-1 record under the direction of coach Cary Finberg.
“Every team is different and that’s the fun part of coaching at the high school level,” Finberg said.
“Every year new kids are coming in, it’s a new experience for them.”
But the results are always the same.
Although Columbia Falls did not advance to state Finberg’s first year with the program (2011-12), it has been there every year since and has performed at a championship level each time. The Wildkats won a state title in 2017, were third a year ago and have placed in the top three the last five seasons.
“You have to give a lot of the credit to the kids,” Finberg said of the success this season, as well as in previous years.
“We have had a lot of good players who have always put the team first, buy into what we want to do. And, they put time in, in the summer.”
Joining Columbia Falls at state from the Western A Division are tournament runner-up Browning, third-place finisher Libby and fourth-place finisher Butte Central.
This is Libby’s first state appearance since 2011. Two more newcomers to the field this year are Laurel and Billings Central. Those three replace Belgrade, Hamilton and Glendive, who failed to advance.
Havre is the defending state champion. The Blue Ponies defeated Hamilton in last year’s title game 52-36.
Columbia Falls opens state play versus Laurel, the third seed from the Eastern Division, at 9 a.m. today.
Libby follows at 10:30 versus Havre, the second seed from the Eastern Division.
In the other two games, Browning, the second seed from the Western Division, faces Hardin, the third seed from the Eastern Division at 3:30 p.m. Billings Central, the top seed from the Eastern Division, and Butte Central, the fourth seed from the Western Division, close things out at 5 p.m.
Semifinal action Friday is 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. with the championship game on Saturday at 6:30.
This will be the first action for all the state teams since divisional action wrapped up Feb. 23.
“I think the week off was good for everybody,” Finberg said.
“We had some sickness run through the team, so it allowed us to get healthy.”
Columbia Falls vs. Laurel
The Wildkats are led by the talented and all-round standout Ryley Kehr. The 5-foot-11 senior guard is averaging 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and a state best 4.5 steals per game.
Trista Cowan, a 5-9 senior guard/forward, has a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds per contest.
Josie Windauer, a 5-10 junior forward, is averaging 10 points and seven rebounds.
“Those three have led us all season,” Finberg said.
“A good group.”
The Wildkats also benefit with the efforts of senior Savvy Ellis and sophomores LaKia Hill, Hannah Schweikert and Madysen Hoerner.
“The youth and inexperience overall hasn’t affected us,” Finberg said.
“The mix of kids and chemistry they have is pretty special.”
Laurel enters play with a 16-6 record.
“They don’t have a lot of size, but play a lot of four guard and five guard offense,” Finberg said his first-round foe.
“They do a good job of taking care of the basketball, play well off the dribble and shoot the ball very well. They play a control game, will run. We want the tempo a little higher than they do.”
Finberg said this game will be a battle of the inside game for the Wildkats versus the perimeter game of the Locomotives.
“We’re just excited, a great season to this point,” he said.
“The kids have had a tremendous year. Hopefully the kids will go down and play good basketball.”
As far as the tournament overall ...
“Havre has been No. 1 all year,” Finberg said.
“They were upset in the divisional tournament by Billings Central.
“Hardin has been rated all-year long. Libby is healthy and is playing good basketball. I think it’s wide open, more so that the last few years.”
Libby vs. Havre
Libby is playing its best basketball of the season right now, having won eight of its last 10 games.
The two losses were to Columbia Falls and Browning.
“I think we exceeded expectations (this season),” Libby coach Wally Winslow said.
“We had some rough spots throughout the year, but we played our best basketball at the end and then through two tournaments.”
Winslow said rebounding and ball control is what turned things around.
“The girls have been playing with more confidence every game,” he said.
The Loggers’ Jayden Winslow, a 5-10 senior, leads the team in scoring. She is averaging 15 points per game.
McKenzie Profitt, a 5-11 junior, leads in rebounding with a 7.5 per game average.
The other three starters are seniors Alli Collins, Emma Gruber and Sammee Bradeen.
Seniors Samantha Miller and Linsey Walker see extended playing time off the bench.
“That whole collection of kids have stepped up,” Winslow said down the stretch.
“We’ve had some other kids step up and score (when teams focus on Jayden Winslow).”
Winslow said the Loggers will have a challenge in its state opener.
“This will be a step up for us,” he said.
“They are athletic, very up tempo. A lot of pressure defense. Something we have not seen before.”
In that case, Winslow said Libby will have to focus on a couple of things.
“Fundamentals first,” he said.
“No. 1 play great defense. We have to rebound and you can’t turn it over. That’s the key ... it’s also the key to every game. Havre will do its best to win those three battles.”
But Winslow said his team has been battle tested thanks to facing the likes of Columbia Falls and Browning.
“Any time you compete with them and play well, you know you are doing something right,” he said.
“That’s always a good thing.”
Class A State Basketball
Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls
First-Round Games on Thursday
9 a.m. — Columbia Falls vs. Laurel
10:30 a.m. — Havre vs. Libby
3:30 p.m.— Browning vs. Hardin
5 p.m. — Billings Central vs. Butte Central
Noon — Butte Central vs. Laurel
1:30 p.m. — Hardin vs. Browning
6:30 p.m. — Hamilton vs. Livingston
8 p.m. — Billings Central vs. Frenchtown