MEDICINE LAKE — Lance Brekke was busy plowing snow Tuesday morning, a common occurrence in northeast Montana this winter. But snow accumulation and weather were far from the main topic on Brekke’s mind.
Within hours, he and the varsity girls basketball players from the co-op of Froid and Medicine Lake loaded the bus and began the two-day journey to Butte for the State C basketball tournament, the team’s third straight appearance.
“We’ve been to the state tournament here the last couple years, so I know our seniors and juniors have racked up the experience. They’ve played summer camps and travel teams, so they’re a pretty seasoned group,” said Brekke. “As far as the first-game locker room talk, it’s, ‘Go out there, have fun and play hard. It’s still the game of basketball.’ If they play their game and have fun with it, that’s about all I coach.”
The Redhawks have had their share of fun this season, surviving arguably the most challenging district in Class C girls basketball — the mighty District 2C. Froid-Lake finished the regular season 14-4 overall, with a 7-2 conference mark. Brekke and the Redhawks faced a difficult schedule throughout the year, renewing rivalries with both Plentywood and Savage, while adding a nonconference game against Class B Poplar.
Of the four regular-season losses, three were by a combined four points, with the fourth a 12-point setback against the Wildcats in Plentywood in early December. Brekke credits the formidable schedule for toughening his team.
“We have some good teams with Plentywood and Savage in our district. Savage was at the state tournament last year and Plentywood was the year before that, so they (were) hungry to get back there. We had good battles between us all throughout the district, the district tournaments and we saw them again at divisionals,” he said. “It was tough battles to get by those two teams and (Westby-Grenora), they have some good players up there. Bainville took the fourth spot in our district, so we had some teams pushing us pretty well throughout the season. We picked up Scobey and Poplar (in the regular season) and they were good teams to play and they challenged us. We definitely had challenging wins and losses, learned from them and here we are, I guess.”
A semifinal setback at the District 2C tournament released something — anger, motivation, revenge — in the Redhawks, who have been red-hot ever since. Froid-Lake breezed through the Eastern C divisional, routing Saco-Whitewater-Hinsdale by nearly 30 points in the opening round, before taking down fierce rivals Savage and Plentywood in the semifinals and championship game.
Brekke points to a halftime adjustment in the Redhawks’ 47-29 win over the Wildcats in the divisional title game, as the team decided to let senior point guard Morgan Mason run wild on the Plentywood defense, scoring at will or dishing to teammates. The strategy helped spark an 18-2 run in the third quarter.
“She’s got all the tools of a very good point guard. She manages the game well, she is a floor general out there and she initiates our offense and defense,” Brekke said of Mason. “She’s a great overall leader for us. Another senior we have is Tawnee Robertson and she provides an awesome defensive spark. She gets in there and mixes it up on the offensive end, hits some outside shots and she’s a very fine player, too.
“We have two good juniors with Mackenzie Dethman and Haley Labatte. They’re our taller post players. They get in there and rebound, score and hit 15-footers. They play good, solid defense. One sophomore we have this year is Haley’s sister Sydney (Labatte). She’s really worked hard in the offseason to become the player she is. She can shoot from the outside and isn’t afraid to stick her nose in there and go for rebounds or attack the basket. Our sixth varsity player, we have Sydney Dethman, Mackenzie’s sister. She’s a very versatile freshman for us. She plays outside, inside. She’s a very smart basketball player and provides a good, well-rounded team for us having those main six in there.”
Brekke will need significant contribution from each of his six when Froid-Lake takes the floor against Harlowton in the opening round. He’s quick to compliment Engineer standouts Madison Wasson and Mariah Dietrich as “fine players and fine shooters,” but believes the entire field has a legitimate chance to walk away a state champion.
“The Northern C, Belt has been pushing those teams for a long time and they were the gold standard for the last 10 years in basketball. They’ve pushed teams and gotten them better in the Northern C and all across the state. Teams are pushing to hit their mark,” Brekke said. “Box Elder and Winnett-Grass Range are very tough teams out of there. Box Elder playing (Twin Bridges), that should be a fun game in the first round, no doubt about it. That (Kailee Oliverson) and (RaeAnne Bendon) are good players. They’re going to have a good game with Box Elder and that’s going to be fun, fun to see that.”
Brekke continued breaking down the tournament: “Plentywood has Ekalaka in the first round and Ekalaka is pretty scrappy. They have four or five decent guards and some girls that roam the inside pretty well for them. Plentywood has some very young guard play, some interior post players that are seniors and juniors, but they’re a scrappy group, as well, so that will be a fun matchup. Winnett-Grass Range and Ennis, don’t really know a whole lot about Ennis, but I know they had a couple good games with Twin Bridges earlier in the year. I think Twin beat them two out of three times, but you know Ennis is legit for making the state tournament. Then Winnett-Grass Range beat Box Elder in that Northern C title game, so top to bottom I project a really tough tournament. There are some deserving teams there, so it should be a lot of fun.”
The two-day, eight-plus hour journey to the Mining City and third consecutive state tournament were well under way by Tuesday afternoon, with the Redhawks making an overnight pitstop in Billings that evening. That kind of travel can bring a lot of overthinking to a coach and young players, so how does one keep entertained in a cross-state adventure?
“I know the girls have their electronics, books and whatever else. I don’t know, maybe I’ll break out some cards and listen to the radio,” he laughed.
It sure beats pushing snow around back home.