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Saco-Whitewater-Hinsdale girls trying to 'enjoy every part of it' as they seek fourth straight State C trophy

North Country Mavericks
Posted at 1:12 PM, Jan 25, 2024

MISSOULA — Amber Erickson knows it isn’t always going to be like this.

The Saco-Whitewater-Hinsdale co-op of the North Country Mavericks will lose another girls basketball game. It might not be this season — where the reigning Class C state champions are 13-0 in pursuit of their fourth state trophy in four years — but it’ll happen.

“Our theme is to enjoy the journey, because they've had a lot of success and I think sometimes we take that for granted and we feel like it's always going to be there or we feel like, ‘Well, we just only won another game,’” Erickson said in a phone interview from Saco, where she’s the school counselor and coach of the powerful girls basketball team.

“But it's important to celebrate and enjoy every part of the journey because it's not always going to be like this. You know, these seniors are a pretty amazing group of kids and they've accomplished a lot, and sometimes it's easy to take that for granted. And I'm really working hard to try to make the girls enjoy every part of it and not overlook anything.”

For her part, Erickson has enjoyed the winding journey that has led her team to this point, the top of Class C girls basketball in Montana. Erickson started coaching the Saco girls in 2002. In 2008, the Saco-Whitewater co-op formed. And in 2014, Hinsdale joined the co-op, which formally became the North Country Mavericks the following year.

Erickson, coaching all three team editions, has amassed 379 wins, compared to 150 losses, during her 22 seasons coaching and hasn’t posted a losing season since her third year on the job. She took Saco-Whitewater to state three consecutive seasons from 2009-11, placing second in 2010 and winning the championship in 2011.

In 2014, Saco-Whitewater and Hinsdale both reached the state tournament as separate programs. The three schools joined forces prior to the 2014-15 season and again reached the state tournament, this time securing another second-place trophy.

But Erickson, whether coaching Saco, Saco-Whitewater or North Country, has never had a run like this.

“I won’t ever see a class like this again in my coaching career, I don’t believe, at the high school level,” she said.

This year’s senior class — which includes her daughter, Teagan, a Montana State University women’s basketball signee — is currently 86-4 in their high school careers. One of those losses came to Fort Benton in the 2021 state championship, and the other three came during the 2021-22 season, where they still earned a third-place trophy at the state tournament.

The Mavericks went 26-0 last season, winning the state championship with three dominant performances in Billings: a 40-point win over Chinook in the first round, a 27-point win over Manhattan Christian in the semifinals and a 33-point win over Twin Bridges in the title game. After winning the championship, the Mavericks posed for a photo with past players who had moved through the program.

“When people leave our team, they still kind of follow our program because they're a piece of our success,” Erickson said. “They were all part of the journey.”

North Country Mavericks
The 2023 Class C state champion Saco-Whitewater-Hinsdale girls basketball team poses for a photo with past players who moved through the program. The co-op, formally named the North Country Mavericks, started in 2014 and has played in four state tournaments since.

Is this year’s team as good as last year’s? Time will tell, but the Mavericks, No. 1 in MTN Sports' girls basketball power rankings, have won all 13 games this season by double figures, including wins over No. 2 Twin Bridges, No. 6 Scobey, No. 7 Roy-Winifred, No. 9 Circle and No. 10 Melstone. Teagan Erickson, a versatile 6-foot-2 senior, and Paige Wasson, a sweet-shooting 5-11 senior guard, lead the way. Both surpassed 1,000 career points earlier this season.

Teagan is the middle of the coach’s three daughters — Jaycee is a sophomore on the Montana Tech women’s basketball team, and Ainsley is a seventh grader who serves as a team manager for the Mavericks — and stuffs the stat sheet with 15.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. She first touched the rim as a seventh grader but, according to her mom, won’t consider her in-game dunks “successful attempts” because she hasn’t yet been able to pop the rim while maintaining control of the ball and flushing it through.

“It’s so funny because we’re around her every day, and so when she does stuff like that, I mean, everybody still thinks it’s cool, but you forget how rare it truly is,” Amber Erickson said.

Wasson, meanwhile, leads the team with 19.3 points and 3.5 steals per game. She’s signed to play at Rocky Mountain College.

“Paige is a phenomenal shooter,” the coach said. “Like, I would put her against the best shooters in the state. She has a great 3-point shot part of her game, and I think she's really elevated this year her ability to stop and pop. So, like her mid-range game is extremely tough, and she gets to the rim really well, so she's got all three phases of the game. That makes her extremely difficult to defend. She's very, very good at reading the passing lanes defensively and can jump out there and get some great steals.

“The biggest thing with Teagan is she’s getting much more physically strong. I think her mental toughness has come a long way. She’s always been a very unselfish player, she loves to get her team involved, and she really thrives off of assists. She loves to pass the ball and watch her teammates score and things like that. I think her IQ has increased a lot. I think she’s figuring out that she can just elevate over people, especially inside. … I can put her pretty much anywhere on the perimeter or inside, depending on who’s in the game with her, so that’s a really amazing thing.

“They’re two extremely talented kids, especially at Class C. I mean, they could compete at any level. To have them both on the same team is huge, but not only that, we have amazing role players. … I would say out of the six different kids that I am alternating starting this year, and it was like this last year as well, I think they would definitely probably start on any other team in our district, if not division.”

Yes, the Mavericks have two college-level basketball players on a small Class C team, but they also have adequate depth with an abundance of athleticism. Josie Brown, Shelbi LaBrie and BaiLee McCoy are all-state track and field athletes, and Kendall Scheffelmear is signed to play volleyball at Dawson Community College. Those four help fill North Country’s basketball rotation that frequently has 10 or 12 players see the court during a given game.

“They’re very elite athletes and they were blessed with a lot of height and length,” Amber Erickson said. “The elite athletes that they are is just really incredible. You just don’t see it very often, especially in small Class C schools.”

And that’s why it won’t always be like this.