For the first time in more than a decade, it seems the Class B girls basketball race is wide open.
After Fairfield and Malta combined to win 11 consecutive state championships from 2007-2017, Three Forks put together an undefeated season last year to claim the title. The Wolves were considered the Class B favorites from the opening tip and ultimately delivered with a 57-48 win over Colstrip in the championship.
The picture isn’t quite so clear entering this season.
“I think Wolf Point, Townsend and Florence are probably the top three teams in the state just by what they have back and what they’ve done the last few years,” said Three Forks coach Mike Sauvageau. “If we could get to the state tournament and play one of those teams, we’d be very happy. Our goal is to get out of the district tournament, and we’re going to have a really tough time doing that. We talked about the state tournament last year, we’re not really talking about it right now. We’re just talking about getting better every day and knocking down each hurdle as we go.”
Sauvageau and the Wolves boasted one of the best guard tandems in Class B last year with Kyle Olson and Shainy Mack. Morgan Allen was a reliable stalwart underneath, and Three Forks had an impressive supporting cast of role players.
Only Olson, who was named MVP of the State B tournament last year, returns to the starting lineup. She joined the Three Forks varsity program midway through the 2016-17 season after transferring from Bozeman. Since then, the Wolves have lost just a couple games. Olson averaged more than 18 points per game last season while leading District 5B in made 3-pointers, but she will own even more of the scoring onus this season.
“We have some people that played (junior varsity) last year stepping in to help her,” Sauvageau said. “She’s starting with a whole new group. We had a good summer together, and she’s a great leader. She’s going to have to have a great year for us, and if she does we can be competitive.”
Three Forks won’t have to travel far to find some of the state’s best competition. Just up Highway 287 sits Townsend, where the Bulldogs will look to improve upon last year’s third-place finish. They graduated five seniors off that team and will be working in new coach Norman Darlinton, but Tavia Rooney returns after averaging a double-double last season and earning all-state honors.
“We’ve always had a really good schedule,” Sauvageau said. “Columbus is going to be one of the better ones down in (District 4B), and we play them twice this year. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be demanding. We will learn from that. We may not win a lot of those games, but we will learn from it. Hopefully by the time February rolls around we’re a tough out.”
While Three Forks and Townsend will be competing in the Southern B division, the Northern B will look to make its return to dominance. Fairfield and Malta controlled the classification for a decade, but neither team qualified for the state tournament last year. Rocky Boy and Poplar represented the North at state, with Poplar advancing to a Saturday loser-out game.
Both teams figure to be tough again this season, as do Harlem, Malta and Fairfield — among others — in what should be an ultra-competitive Northern B.
Poplar, though, lost star post player Imani Bighorn, who transferred to Wolf Point, where her sister Mary is already entrenched in the starting lineup. The Wolves played at the state tournament in 2017 but ended last season with a loss to Poplar in a divisional challenge game.
Expectations couldn’t be higher at Wolf Point this season, as coach Cody Larson returned a wealth of talent and added Imani Bighorn, who earned all-state honors, from Poplar and Mya Fourstar from Frazer. Fourstar, who is now a junior, has earned national recognition for her scoring outbursts — she averaged 30.5 points per game as a freshman after scoring 50 in a game as an eight grader — with the Class C Bearcubs.
“I think the thing that’s going to have to happen is, everyone on our roster, from a C spot to a JV spot to a varsity spot, has to learn to accept their roles,” said Larson, who is in his fourth season as Wolf Point’s head coach. “It doesn’t matter what you do at previous places, you’ve got to be in it for the common goal for the team. If the program and everyone can do that individually, I think we have a good chance to succeed.”
If the Wolves get that commitment, there will be few, if any, nights they’re out-talented. Even without the transfers of Imani Bighorn and Fourstar, Wolf Point was going to be among Class B’s most skilled teams.
Mary Bighorn was a second-team all-conference choice last year and is capable of contributing nightly double-doubles in points and rebounds. Abby Juve was also a second-team all-conference player, and Semarah Wells got a first-team all-conference nod. Wells scored 32 points in Wolf Point’s win over Poplar in the District 2B championship. Wells’ mother, Katie Zilkoski, owns the Wolves’ single-game scoring record of 34 points, according to Larson.
“We got a good returning core coming back that were a huge piece, if not the main piece, of the puzzle last year in our success late in the season and going that direction,” said Larson, noting that defensive specialist Alyssa Archdale will see an expanded role this season after coming off the bench last year. “We like that part. We like what we have. We have some transfers coming in, but people forget that we were there in the end, so we’re hoping that our girls combined with new girls can put it together in the end even more.”