Havre has it.
The proverbial target on the back belongs solely to Dustin Kraske’s Blue Ponies this year, whether the longtime coach wants to acknowledge it or not. Havre capped an undefeated season with the Class A girls basketball state championship last March and returns arguably the best player in the state in Kyndall Keller, who averaged 17.4 points per game last season.
“It’s humbling that people think that maybe we would be (the favorite),” Kraske said. “But I just think there’s a lot of really good teams, well-coached teams, and I think it’s going to be a great year for Class A girls basketball.”
It certainly could be another banner year in Class A, as many of the classification’s top talents return. It starts with Keller, who earned all-state honors last season as a sophomore. In addition to leading the Blue Ponies in scoring, she was second on the team in rebounds and steals.
Havre did lose some key contributors to graduation, so players like Kadia Miller and Kylie Walker will be expected to carry bigger loads.
“Expectations are high, don’t get me wrong,” Kraske said. “We’ve got Kyndall Keller, Kadia Miller coming back, they both started and played a whole bunch of minutes. Kylie Walker played a little bit for us. Other than that, everyone else is pretty much new, but we’d like to think our expectations are high all the time.”
Havre will get an early-season litmus test. The Blue Ponies host Billings Central on Dec. 7, and the Rams are eager to erase last year’s disappointing finish. Central was among the best teams in Class A in the regular season but faltered at the Eastern A super-divisional tournament and failed to qualify for state.
“I think that plays into our sense of urgency and just taking a little bit of pride in knowing that obviously the Eastern A is tough and you’ve got to bring your best on any given night,” said Rams fourth-year coach Jetton Ailes. “The dynamic that we have going this year is a lot different. Not losing anybody, that kind of helps, but we’re excited with where things are going.”
Billings Central returns its entire team from a year ago, including five seniors and junior Olivia Moten-Schell, who was an all-state selection last year after averaging more than 14 points and seven rebounds per game. Ailes has high expectations for Isabelle Erickson, Melissa Hanser and Chloe Paharik, as well, and said freshman Solei Elletson will have a role on the basketball team after having a big impact for Central’s state championship soccer team. According to Ailes, every non-freshman on the Rams’ roster has won at least one state title, whether that be in soccer or volleyball.
“So they know what it takes,” Ailes said, “but they have to transition that to the basketball floor.”
The Rams won’t be an easy Eastern A favorite, though, as the conference will be loaded with talent this winter. All-state players Gabby Weber and Aspen Cotter are back at Belgrade and Laurel, respectively, and the list goes on.
Glendive’s Karsen Murphy is expected to have a big season, and Marie Five seems poised to take on a larger role at Hardin, which has played for the past two Class A state championships, finishing second to Havre last year and Columbia Falls in 2017.
The Wildkats finished third last season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but Cary Finberg earned co-coach of the year recognition (alongside Browning coach Ray Augare) in the Northwestern A and Dani Douglas, Hannah Gedlaman, Ryley Kehr and Trista Cowan were all-conference selections. Douglas and Gedlaman graduated in the spring, but Kehr and Cowan were just juniors last season.
“Coach Finberg over there in Columbia Falls does a wonderful job. He’s got some nice kids back,” Kraske said. “Browning seems like they always have a wonderful basketball team, they’ll be tough. Butte Central with Meg Murphy, those guys always seem to come around and play well by the end of the year. I’d like to think it’s really open. I’m not sure that there’s any favorite.”
Browning, Butte Central and Hamilton joined Columbia Falls as the Western A’s representatives at last year’s state tournament, and all four teams played on Saturday. Columbia Falls defeated Hamilton in the third-place game.
This season’s state tournament will be March 7-9, 2019 at Great Falls. It’s the first time the Class A boys and girls state tournaments will be held the same days at the same site.