(BRANDON SULLIVAN / MTN Sports)

Dillon basketball fans are used to booking hotels through Sunday morning at the state tournament. The Beavers have played in four consecutive state title games, winning the past two, each against Billings Central. Fans in Beaverhead County are already talking about a fifth straight Saturday night appearance, but this season’s program has big shoes to fill.

“Obviously we lost a great group of kids to graduation with Troy (Andersen), R.J. Fitzgerald and Tanner Haverfield,” said Dillon assistant Jeff Edwards, who was filling in for head coach Terry Thomas, who was unavailable. “We pretty much lost six of our top seven players. We return Michael Haverfield, who has put a tremendous amount of work in. We have a great group of seniors coming in that work really hard and are good individuals, and I’m excited to watch them play and get the opportunity to show their talents.”

Andersen, who recently was named Big Sky Conference football freshman of the year, and the elder Haverfield, who is a freshman at Montana Western, willed Dillon to the title game last March. Andersen scored 44 points in three games, while Haverfield poured in 59, including a 26-point performance in the 59-45 win over Billings Central in the finale.

That scoring, along with the contributions from Fitzgerald, will be missed by the Beavers this winter. But Michael Haverfield, now a junior, added to his already-polished game in the summer months, giving Dillon a go-to guy on the offensive end.

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“Michael has done a tremendous job in the offseason working on his game,” said Edwards. “I feel like he’s going to have a really solid year, but I think everyone will do their best to fill the roles that are left. I’m excited to see what they can do, and all of the hard work they put in this offseason will hopefully pay off.”

Dillon’s roster is filled with capable athletes – senior Clay Alison is listed at 6-foot-9; Andrew Lemiuex, Coby King, Jake Ferris and Anders Westman each enter their senior campaigns; and the program consistently reloads more than it rebuilds. Capturing another undefeated season is certainly a daunting task, but once the competition starts, carrying on the tradition kicks in.

“I’m excited to see, we have a lot of new kids playing their first varsity basketball. I want to see how they compete once the ball is tipped,” Edwards said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to see some new faces and see them compete at a very high level and to play against other opponents rather than practicing against yourselves, that’s always fun.”

While Dillon seeks to find its identity early in the season, Billings Central appears in prime position to make another state championship appearance. Coach Jim Stergar returns one of the state’s most prolific athletes in Chrishon Dixon. Entering only his junior season, Dixon will set the tone for the Rams this season after averaging around 12 points and six rebounds per game as a sophomore.

“Chrishon is a great athlete,” said Stergar. “He did a lot of his scoring inside last season because he is so quick, but if he continues to improve his 3-point shooting he will be a challenge to defend.”

Stergar and Central will look to replace the likes of Peyton Hanser, Jet Campbell and Shay Dantic, each of whom contributed throughout last season. But the Rams’ coach points to senior guard Isaac Meyer as an athlete to keep an eye on this year. He says a familiar name also joined the program this winter.

“Liam Clancy is a name everyone knows from the golf season,” Stergar said about the Class A state champion and future University of Wyoming golfer. “He didn’t go out (for basketball) last year, but he’s here this year and we’re hoping he can step right in.”

Polson edged Belgrade in last year’s consolation game at the state tournament, but each team has its own holes to fill this year. The Pirates lost seniors Tanner Wilson and Matthew Rensvold, while the Panthers return senior Dawson Fowler to the fold. Fowler will be relied on more heavily this season after Brock Salsbury graduated last spring.

Stergar said Class A offers a bevy of individual talent for fans to follow this season. He was particularly keen of Hardin’s Famous Lefthand and says Lewistown’s combo of Jaden Graham and Tanner Trafton will be a handful each night.

Stergar also expects Pat Hansen and Laurel to make a push in the Eastern A.

Columbia Falls, which last month won the program’s first State A football title, goes head-to-head with Dillon in the first game of the season next weekend. Hamilton, which finished runner-up in that football finale, returns eight players from the state tournament team last season. Carter Kearns and Hunter Omlid were all-state selections, but the Broncs lack the size of some Class A teams, leaving Travis Blome seeking rebounding help on each end of the floor.

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