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What I'll be watching: Conference play on deck

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Posted at 5:04 PM, Jan 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-03 12:13:26-05

It’s been nearly two weeks since Montana’s high school teams hit the hardwood, but with the calendar turning to 2020 teams are back in action beginning Thursday evening.

Class AA is still in the midst of its non-conference schedule, while most of the state is getting into the heart of conference play.

Two of the Southwestern A’s best boys teams will go at it in Hamilton on Saturday night, as both have aspirations of conference and state titles. The same holds true in Classes B and C on the boys side, as recent Northern B powerhouses meet in Fairfield and two of the Southern B’s best play in Jefferson. Keep an eye on Twin Bridges and Fort Benton in Class C over the coming weeks. Both teams have a ton of talent and should be in contention for divisional titles.

On the girls side, Great Falls CMR will have an extremely tough weekend taking on two of the top Western AA teams. An inter-class clash, though, highlights the Class AA and A slate, as a pair of Billings schools with championship hopes do battle.

Early positioning in District 4B is up for grabs over the weekend, too, as four of the district’s top teams have important conference games fresh off the holiday break. District 2C is likely going to be among the most competitive districts in the entire state regardless of class, and two of its top teams meet up on Friday night. Don’t forget about District 4C, either. The district’s two representatives at last fall’s State C girls tournament meet up on Saturday evening.

After a long holiday layoff, which teams can shake off the rust to start 2020? That and more highlight what I’ll be watching over the weekend.

Boys

Class AA

  • Missoula Hellgate has been as advertised in the early portion of the season, and the Knights will get another chance to make a statement to the Eastern AA when they visit Great Falls CMR on Friday night. CMR hasn’t fared well against the Western AA so far this season, with losses to both Missoula Sentinel and Kalispell Glacier. However, it could be a season-changing victory if the Rustlers can upset Hellgate at home.
  • Great Falls High will also get a test against a Western AA opponent, as the Bison travel to Missoula on Saturday to take on Missoula Sentinel. Great Falls High’s only loss of the season came by one point at Kalispell Glacier. Sentinel, on the other hand, has been utterly impressive. The Spartans’ offense has scored north of 70 points in each game its played this season and features a bevy of players capable of putting the ball in the hole. This is an opportunity for both sides to build momentum as they head into conference play.

Class A

  • Dillon will make the trip to Livingston on Saturday to face off against the Rangers in a non-conference bout. Dillon should be among the best teams in the Western A this season, and the Beavers’ only loss was a triple-overtime thriller against Frenchtown. It will be interesting to see how Dillon rebounds from that heartbreaking defeat. Livingston, a state tournament team last year, has been up and down early on. The Rangers lost to Billings Central on the road by four, but then followed that up by nearly taking down Hardin if it weren’t for a buzzer beater by Famous Lefthand. Which Livingston team will show up against Dillon?
  • Both Hamilton and Butte Central were at the State A tournament last March. In fact, the Maroons beat the Broncs in double overtime to claim the third-place trophy. The two squads meet in Hamilton on Saturday night. Butte Central brings back almost every single player from that team, while Hamilton has had to reload a bit. Both teams expect to be in the hunt for the Southwestern A regular-season title, and a win on Saturday is a step in that direction.

Class B

  • The Northern B has been one of the most competitive basketball divisions in Montana for the past several years, and that should again be the case this season. Two of those teams, Shelby and Fairfield, will meet in Fairfield on Friday night. Fairfield missed the state tournament last season and is looking to rebound, but the Eagles have struggled out of the gate. Shelby, too, has hit bumps in the road early on, as the Coyotes lost to a pair of Western B teams to open the season. Shelby should be back at full strength soon with the return of Tanner Parsons, and that could spell trouble for the rest of the Northern B. Fairfield, though, is looking to show that you can’t exclude them from any championship conversations.
  • Three Forks was dominant in District 5B last year, as the Wolves ran through the conference on their way to the state tournament. Three Forks lost some pieces, but it still has Micaiah Hauser, one of the most explosive scoring guards in Class B. Three Forks will get a test from district foe Jefferson, as the Panthers have one of Class B’s top athletes in Avery Stiles. Has Jefferson taken the step necessary to compete for the district title and a possible state tournament berth?

Class C

  • Twin Bridges has had some tough luck over the past couple seasons in the Western C, as the Falcons haven’t been able to sneak past Manhattan Christian and Arlee. Arlee has moved up to Class B and Manhattan Christian has graduated some serious firepower, so this could be the year the Falcons get over the hump. They turn their attention to rival Drummond on the road on Friday night. Drummond has been a staple at the Western C divisional tournament in recent years, too, but can the Trojans keep pace with the Falcons’ high-flying offense?
  • The Fort Benton boys haven’t been shy about hanging points on the scoreboard, as the Longhorns have topped 70 points three times, including a 91-point outburst against Turner. Fort Benton is among the deepest and most talented teams in the Northern B, but that depth could be tested on Friday at Hays-Lodgepole. The Thunder Birds have struggled early in the season, but they are also capable of putting points up in a hurry. Fort Benton will likely need to light up the scoreboard again to escape.

Girls

Class AA

  • There may not be a tougher stretch for a Class AA girls basketball team than what Great Falls CMR faces this weekend. The Rustlers will travel to Missoula on Friday, where they’ll face Missoula Hellgate. Hellgate seems to have carried over momentum from last year’s third-place finish, as the Knights are unbeaten to start the year and have a victory over Billings West, which is presumed to be among the best in the Eastern AA. It won’t get any easier on Saturday, as CMR will host Helena Capital and the twin towers of Paige and Dani Bartsch. The Bruins have stormed through the early portion of their non-conference schedule. If CMR is able to pull out one victory over the weekend, that could bode well for its chances in the postseason.

Class A

  • A rivalry gets renewed for another edition on Saturday night in Hardin, as Laurel travels to the Dawg Pound to face the Bulldogs. Hardin nearly pulled out a come-from-behind win over Billings Central just before the holiday break, while Laurel is still finding its footing under Eddie Cochran and without Mya Hansen. Central, Havre and Hardin look to be on a different level in the Eastern A, but is Laurel the fourth team in the division to look out for?
  • A cross-class clash is possibly the highlight of Class AA and Class A this weekend, as Billings West and Billings Central do battle at Central on Saturday night. West had high expectations entering the season after last year’s runner-up finish at the State AA tournament, while Billings Central’s loaded roster has been talked about frequently already. This has no bearing on conference title races, but if you’re a fan of basketball, the Nelles Center is the place to be on Saturday night.

Class B

  • District 4B is in for a heck of a weekend. On Thursday night Huntley Project travels to Roundup to take on the Panthers. Both teams will be without key pieces, as Alana Graves will be absent for the Red Devils and Meghan Eiselein is still recovering from a knee injury for Roundup. The district should be among the most competitive in Class B this season, so every conference game will feel like a must-win.
  • Columbus and Joliet are the other two District 4B teams looking to compete for the regular-season crown. Joliet picked up an impressive win over Colstrip early in the season, but since then the J-Hawks have fallen by one to Forsyth, five to Huntley Project and three to Lodge Grass. Columbus is the reigning Southern B divisional tournament champion and the Cougars are looking for more. After a pair of narrow losses at the Woodden Memorial Basketball Tournament to open the season, Columbus is beginning to round into form. This weekend’s winners will have the upper hand in the race for the regular-season title.

Class C

  • The Eastern C, particularly District 2C, is going to be a battle night after night. Friday is another example of this, as Froid-Medicine Lake will travel to Plentywood to take on the Wildcats. Plentywood has suffered one setback this season, as the Wildcats lost to Westby-Grenora just before the holiday break. Froid-Medicine Lake is off to a perfect start and will likely be in the hunt for the regular-season conference title. Plentywood has already suffered one conference loss and likely can’t afford two conference losses this early in the season if it wants a shot at the regular-season conference title. Friday night could go a long way in determining postseason seeding.
  • Ekalaka and Wibaux represented the Southern C at the State C tournament last year, and both programs have the same sky-high expectations this year with loaded rosters returning. Ekalaka beat Wibaux in both the District 4C and Southern C championship games, so there’s likely a bit of revenge on the mind of the Longhorns. They’ll get their shot Saturday, as the Longhorns host Ekalaka. The Bulldogs handed Wibaux a 20-point beatdown in the divisional championship last year, something that’s likely lingered with the Longhorns and driven them. Not only is Saturday night’s matchup a possible preview of the District 4C title game later this year, but it could also be a preview of the divisional championship. Either way, two of Class C’s best girls basketball teams do battle in Wibaux on Saturday evening.