The Helena High girls basketball program had gone 20 years between Class AA state championships prior to the Bengals’ title in 2017. The wait wasn’t as long this time around.
Helena High repeated as the Class AA champions last winter, defeating Missoula Sentinel for the second consecutive season in the championship, a 53-49 win in Billings. The Bengals capped the year with a 21-3 record, avenging a seven-point overtime loss to the Spartans in the Western AA divisional championship.
Eric Peterson’s club could again be the final team standing when the Class AA tournament reaches the Butte Civic Center in March, as the Bengals reload for 2018-2019.
“Kamden Hilborn was our only senior last year, so we do have a lot of returners coming back. Early on that experience is coming out in practice and we’re a little ahead of where we normally are because we don’t have to teach as many of the plays and things like that, they all know that, so that’s beneficial for us,” said Peterson. “We’re still trying to iron out some kinks without having (Hillborn), she’s been the leader the last three years at the point guard position, so we’re trying to figure that out, but overall it’s good to have as many girls back as we do.”
Hilborn filled the stat sheet last winter, taking her 11.7 points, 5.1 assists, 4.2 steals and 2.8 rebounds to Montana State, but defending Gatorade player of the year and Montana Lady Griz commit Jamie Pickens averaged a double-double for the second consecutive season, 15 points and just shy of 12 rebounds per contest, tops in the state a year ago, while adding nearly three steals and two assists per game.
Pickens will certainly be the focus of opposing teams, leaving Peterson and the coaching staff looking elsewhere for points.
“Our guards, for sure. McKayla Kloker, she had a great summer and we’re looking for her to have a breakout year this year. Our twins, the Aasved girls, Payton and Paige, they both have proven they can shoot it in big games. Those three will have to come in and step up and shoot the ball, which we’re not shy about doing,” Peterson said. “As (Hillborn) leaves, Vanessa Walsh is going to be our vocal leader. She’s hit some big shots, too, and overall she’s probably worked more than anybody on her shot and her form, so we’re really confident in her pulling the trigger as well.”
“I think we led Class AA last year in 3-point attempts by over 90 shots, so in order to open things up in the middle for Jamie Pickens we have to be able to shoot the ball and have confidence doing it,” Peterson continued, referencing the 460 3-pointers attempted last season, 139 of which the Bengals made. “The girls have put a lot of work in and they know us coaches have that confidence in them so they’re free to pull the trigger. We’ll live with the consequences and hopefully those consequences are that the ball goes in the basket.”
The returning experience, particularly with all-everything Pickens and the dangerous outside shooting, have Peterson excited for the upcoming season, though he believes his team shouldn’t be the favorite.
“You have to start with Missoula Sentinel. They lost seven seniors last year, but they’ve also played in (six of the last eight) state championship games, so they’re always one to watch,” he said. “Billings West is probably the favorite, I would say, because I think they lost one or two seniors last year and they have a huge lineup. They were what, 18-2 or 19-2 going into the state tournament last year? They’re very similar to us, they didn’t lose a lot of players and we probably lost more of an impact player than what they may have, so they’re going to be really good.
“Helena Capital is always good and I know (new head coach) Katie (Garcin-Forba) is going to do a good job with them. Even though (former Helena Capital coach Bill Pilgeram) left, Katie will fit right in and she’s a good coach that will have them ready to play. They have some good, young talent to go with seniors. I think the usual suspects at this point, but that’s the beauty of the season is you never really know until you get going.”
West was one of the hottest teams down the stretch of last season, entering the state tournament on a 12-game win streak, winning the Eastern AA divisional, before a disappointing opening-round loss to Kalispell Glacier at state.
Head coach Charlie Johnson lost only two to graduation, Ambreya Windy Boy and Megan Brown, while returning his top three scorers in TyLee Manuel (11.4 points), Shayla Montague (9.7) and TyRaa Manuel (6.8). Twins Maddie and Willa Albrecht were also key contributors in the points and rebound departments, giving Johnson multiple options.
“Trying to find a mismatch,” Johnson said of the team’s strategy. “We have girls with some size that can stretch the floor and shoot, they can handle the basketball and, of course, we can dump it inside, if TyLee has a mismatch, TyRaa, Willa, Maddie, Shayla, whichever big has a mismatch, that’s a great luxury to have. The great thing about these girls is that they’re not selfish and we just try to find that mismatch.”
Montague, who is joining TyRaa Manuel at MSU-Billings, was among the state’s most challenging to defend a year ago, taking defenders inside or out. The 5-foot-11 forward ranked No. 2 in 3-pointers made last winter, connecting on 40 attempts, but was also in the top 10 for field goal percentage (46 percent) and was tied for first in points per attempt (1.39).
TyLee Manuel, a Black Hills State commit, and both Albrechts stand 6-feet or more, making for a powerful offense, but it’s the opposite end of the floor Johnson wants to see the focus.
“I think if we can get stops on the defensive end and get out and run, that’s going to be a great success for our team,” he said. “It’s something we want to do, we have a lot of length to get rebounds, block shots, get steals and get out and run and not have to call an offensive set. It’s fun to see and they did a good job with that (Monday night) and hopefully we’ll do a good job with that this season.”
Bozeman topped Helena Capital in the consolation a year ago, and the Hawks and Bruins return key contributors in Ayla Embry and Sydney Sheridan, respectively. Embry’s 10.7 points per game ranked eighth in Class AA last season.
Montana State commit Kola Bad Bear will miss her senior season following an ACL injury in volleyball, leaving her Billings Senior squad to rely on Ellie Ostermiller and Tavy Findon. Great Falls CMR, another state tournament team last March, will look to junior Allie Olsen to lead the way, while Kalispell Glacier’s leading scorer Kali Gulick seeks a repeat trip to state for the Wolfpack.
Johnson’s Bears and Peterson’s Bengals may enter the season as favorites on paper, but with talent littered throughout the state, both know nothing is guaranteed.
“I mentioned before and told the girls, ‘Paper burns,’ so we know we have a bullseye on our back. We won the league last year, we went 19-4 and we do return a lot of girls, so we’re going to get every team’s best every night,” said Johnson. “It’s not going to be easy, which is exciting for us, and we need to be at our best, not right away, but we need to come out and compete and hopefully by season’s end we’re playing our best basketball.”
“There will be that wear-and-tear, for sure, and we’re lucky enough this year to be off to Billings to play some Billings schools that we never get to play before tournament time,” said Peterson. “We don’t’ have a single Class A school on our schedule this year, it’s all AA, so we’ll play every Class AA school, I believe, except (Billings West) before the tournaments, so that will be fun for us this year to see everyone in person going into the tournament, where we will hopefully get lucky.”