For the past 11 years, the Class B girls basketball championship has gone through Fairfield and/or Malta.
The Eagles have won seven state titles during that stretch and the M-Ettes four. The teams have met each other for the championship seven times, including the past two. Malta won the 2016 title, while Fairfield is the defending state champion after its stunning 34-33 win last March.
So it’s safe to assume the Northern B rivals are two of the favorites to compete for this year’s state championship, right?
“No, definitely not,” laughed Fairfield coach Dustin Gordon.
“We’ve had Fairfield in our opening-weekend tournament for the last 15 years. When we play them, we know what they have and how good they are,” countered Three Forks coach Mike Sauvageau. “Malta and Fairfield, the North has definitely dominated in basketball.”
Gordon and Sauvageau continued to mention teams that will be looking to dethrone the Northern B’s dominant duo: Wolf Point, Colstrip, Townsend, and Sauvageau’s Wolves, who return an abundance of talent from last year’s team that finished third at the state tournament.
Three Forks had just two seniors on last year’s roster — Karri Guthrie and Josee Scott — but also lost Talyn Pitcher to a knee injury suffered during volleyball season. Pitcher, who earned all-state honors as a junior last season, would have anchored the Wolves’ on the interior. As it is now, Sauvageau and his team will rely even more heavily on the talented guard tandem of Shainy Mack and Kyle Olson.
Olson transferred to Three Forks from Bozeman in 2016 but had to sit out the first portion of last season due to Montana High School Association rules. Once she entered Three Forks’ lineup, the Wolves lost just two games the rest of the season, including their 62-59 loss to Malta in the first round of the state tournament.
“I think our strength is our guards, Shainy and Kyle,” Sauvageau said. “I’m sure everybody’s going to come out and put pressure on them, so we’re going to have to go inside. Morgan (Allen) is going to have to step up and do a little bit more. Sydney Lane and Paeton Ohs, they’re going to have to come in and fill some time.”
Sauvageau added that it’s going to take multiple girls playing increased roles to help Three Forks overcome the losses of Guthrie, Scott and Pitcher. Sinclair Oliver, Toni Eide and Heather Wilson will be important pieces, as will an improved Morgan Allen, who has committed to playing volleyball and high jumping at Rocky Mountain College.
While Three Forks is seeking some answers early in the season, so too is the defending champion. Fairfield graduated Natalie Klinker, who is now playing at the University of Idaho, and Allix Goldhahn, who is now at Montana State-Northern. The Eagles also lost a key piece to injury: Would-be returning starter Aria Johnson will miss the season with a torn ACL.
But Gordon, who guided Fairfield to 120 consecutive wins from 2010-15, likes the makeup of this year’s team, though he admits it will look different from years past.
“It’ll probably be a lot more fun to watch from the stands, a little more up-tempo,” he said. “I like the summer we had. We got 30-plus games in this summer, we’ve got some kids who were in non-scoring roles last year that became a different player overnight. I like where we’re at. We’re going to be an underdog again, for sure. The South is going to probably have the three favorites for a change, which is kind of cool, kind of good for Class B basketball. But I like the squad I have and we’ll see where it is at the end of the season again.”
Kaitlyn Jones is back after a strong state tournament showing where she averaged just shy of 10 points per game. Kenna Pitcher flashed at the state tournament, as well, and figures to have an elevated role this season.
Fairfield will likely still have to contend with Malta in the Northern B, though Sophia Stiles, the M-Ettes’ reigning Gatorade Player of the Year, is now with the Montana Lady Grizzlies. Wolf Point is another team to watch in the North, as Aubrey Zilkoski and the Wolves will be looking to make a return trip to the state tournament.
But Colstrip might just be the preseason favorite. The Fillies had just two seniors on last year’s state tournament team and bring back a talented roster that includes Shelby Jordan and Amaya LaFranier.
Colstrip will almost certainly be the favorite in District 3B but will have to deal with the likes of Three Forks and Townsend at the Southern B divisional tournament.
“Townsend was as good as anybody we played at the state tournament last year,” Sauvageau said. “They didn’t get to go, but they are talented. They got some very good guards, they got a bunch of big girls. I think they are the best team in (District 5B) right now. That’s going to be tough getting over that hurdle. Our goal is to get to Billings to the divisional tournament and just try to keep knocking down doors.”
“Last year, I was new to the program. The girls hadn’t been out of the district tournament for six years. All of a sudden, we started getting better and better and kind of caught people by surprise,” Sauvageau added. “But I don’t think we’ll do that this year.”