A frenetic high school fall sports season in Montana has wrapped up, meaning we jump straight into hoops season. Last year's boys state champions -- Bozeman, Billings Central, Bigfork and Manhattan Christian -- and last year's girls champions -- Helena High, Havre, Wolf Point and Box Elder -- enter the season looking to add more trophies to the case.
Games tip off as early as 10:30 a.m. on Friday morning. Inevitably, there will be teams that emerge as championship contenders in the opening weeks of the season that weren't previously on the radar. Here are the teams and players I'll have my eye on early in the season.
Bozeman was able to get the proverbial monkey off its back last March by winning its first state title since 2011 after runner-up finishes in each of the previous three years. Several key players return for the Hawks, including title-game heroes Brett Clark and Carter Ash. Kenneith Eiden IV, Hudsen Willett and Jackson Coles are among the guys looking to fill the voids left by Ryan Simpson and Ryan Lonergan, who combined to average 28 points per game last season.
The Hawks' championship opponent, Missoula Hellgate, will be right back in the thick of it again this year behind all-state guard and Utah State commit Rollie Worster. Worster is joined by 6-foot-8 senior Abe Johnson, who averaged 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and Missoula Big Sky transfer Camdyn LaRance, who scored 18.1 point per game last season and was Class AA's second leading scorer to Worster.
Other teams to watch include Billings West, which is led by Cade Tyson, who scored 23 points in West's third-place win over Great Falls High in March, and Helena Capital, which is returning all but four players from last year's team.
Billings Central won its first state title since 1996 last March with a blowout win over Hardin, which defeated the Rams in the 2018 Class A title game. The Rams, though, lost all-state guard Chrishon Dixon, all-state forward Sam Gray and a talented senior class.
Hardin, though, returns the bulk of its scoring once again. The Bulldogs are led byFamous Lefthand, who recently committed to Rocky Mountain College, and Trae Hugs. Lefthand averaged 22 points, five rebounds and 3.5 steals for Hardin last season after averaging 18 points and six boards his sophomore year. He's a back-to-back all-state selection. Hugs had 32 points for Hardin in the semifinals against Butte Central last year, proving there are two prolific scorers for opponents to contain. The Bulldogs are likely the perceived favorite to reach their third consecutive title game.
But keep an eye on Laurel, as the Locomotives bring in longtime Columbus coach Paul Barta. Butte Central is also among the teams to keep an eye on, as the Maroons return nearly their entire roster from last year's third-place team. Frenchtown is another team to watch out West, as the Broncs feature one of the most explosive scorers in Class A in Cade Baker, who is in range when he steps off the bus.
Bigfork made it back-to-back titles last spring with a four-point win over Missoula Loyola in the Class B championship. The Vikings, though, will have to replace Montana’s all-time assist leader Anders Epperly, do-everything forwards Logan Gilliard and Colton Reichenbach, who are gone after graduating.
Fairfield missed out on the state tournament last year, but the Eagles have championship dreams with all-state guard Keeley Bake back commanding the offense. Fairfield will have its work cut out in District 1B, as Shelby brings back a pair of all-state performers – junior Tanner Parsons and sophomore Logan Leck. Parsons was injured during football season, but the Coyotes’ coaches expect him to return to the basketball court after the holiday break. Don’t count out Poplar and Rocky Boy, either, as both made runs at the State B tournament last spring. Poplar rallied from a huge fourth-quarter deficit before falling to eventual champion Bigfork, and Rocky Boy finished fourth after falling to Big Timber in the consolation.
Huntley Project was young last year, but the Red Devils return three all-conference selections – Noah Bouchard, Tim Rose and Isaiah Bouchard – that could help push them back into the state tournament.
Manhattan Christian climbed the mountain last year and beat Arlee to capture its second title in program history, with the first coming in 1984. Manhattan Christian had finished runner-up to Arlee the previous two seasons. The Eagles will need to replace Caleb Bellach, among others, who scored 42 points in the championship game and has moved on to Montana State. The offensive firepower may not dissipate, however, as the Eagles bring back an all-state backcourt in senior Sam Leep and junior Caidin Hill.
Out East, Scobey and Fairview separated themselves from the pack early last season and will likely do so again, as both teams bring back nearly their entire rosters. Fairview’s Alex Schriver, Cody Asbeck and Josh Herron all garnered all-state selections last year and headline a loaded senior class. Junior Caden Handran is a returning all-state selection for Scobey and one of the best all-around players in the class, while the Spartans also have all-conference selections Brayden and Parker Cromwell. Don’t be surprised if Scobey and Fairview are battling for the divisional and state titles in 2020.
Helena High won its third consecutive Class AA title in March behind multiple-time all-state selection Jamie Pickens, who had an 18-point, 17-rebound double-double in the 2019 championship game. Pickens has moved on to the University of Montana, and the Bengals will also need to fill spots voided by Paige and Payton Aasved and Vanessa Walsh. Senior Emily Feller could be a key piece this year, as Feller was the only Bengal other than the Aasved twins and Pickens to lead the team in scoring during the regular season.
Crosstown foe Helena Capital could be the team to beat, as the Bruins return junior twin towers Dani and Paige Bartsch but will need to find a new point guard after the graduation of all-state selection Sydney Sheridan. Billings West also brings back a pair of twin sisters in Willa and Maddie Albrecht. West had title aspirations last spring but couldn’t overcome Helena High in the title game. The only returning all-state player in Class AA is stationed in Missoula Sentinel, as Lexi Deden returns to lead the Spartans, who missed out on the state tournament last year.
The Eastern A and Central A are going to be an absolute dogfight night after night. Havre is Class A’s two-time defending state champion and returns all-state guard and University of Montana commit Kyndall Keller, who averaged 17 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and shot 48 percent from the field last season. Keller is just one of many returning for the Blue Ponies, as all-state selections Kadia Miller and Sadie Filius will be back, as well.
Havre’s stiffest competition will come from Billings Central and Hardin. Hardin has finished runner-up three consecutive years and brings back all-state selection Marie Five, who has been utterly dominant in the low post. Joining Five are all-conference selections Ivery Fritzler and Kamber Goodluck. Billings Central, though, may have the most impressive roster on paper. The Rams welcomed in Mya Hansen this fall after the move from Laurel, and the returning all-state sophomore will instantly become Central’s most lethal weapon. Joining Hansen as a returning all-state selection is senior Olivia Moten-Schell. The embarrassment of riches continues, though, as junior Isabelle Erickson and sophomore Solei Elletson were also all-conference picks last year for the Rams.
Glendive will be an interesting team to watch, as the Red Devils are led by returning all-state selection Karsen Murphy, who has committed to the University of Montana. The Western A could be a toss-up, as several experienced players graduated, but Browning is the only team returning two first-team all-conference selections in seniors Tamika Guardipee and Dulci Skuncap, who led Browning to a second-place finish at the Western A divisional tournament last year.
Wolf Point captured its first state title since 2003 last spring with a dominant title-game performance against Florence. The Wolves, though, lost sisters Imani and Mary Bighorn to graduation but return the majority of their roster. That includes Mya Fourstar, who transferred from Frazer prior to last season. Fourstar scored 50 points for Frazer’s varsity team as an eighth grader, giving the Wolves a proven scorer.
The Northern B will be among the best divisions in the state, as Harlem and Fairfield are expected to compete as well. Harlem returns all-state selection senior L’Tia Lawrence to lead the team, and she’s joined by second-team all-conference selection Taya Trottier, who is now a sophomore. Fairfield returns Kenna Pitcher, who garnered all-state honors last spring and will likely be leaned upon to shoulder much of the load.
The South has several impact players returning that could make for an intriguing regular season. Colstrip brings back all-state sophomore Bailey Egan and all-conference seniors Jessi Jordan and Kya Egan from a team that was bounced in the divisional tournament. Forsyth is anchored by all-state junior Lindsey Hein, who makes her presence felt on both ends of the floor. The Dogies also bring back second-team all-conference selection Jordan Cookman. Huntley Project, Columbus and Roundup all return an all-state player, while Huntley Project and Roundup bring back two players that garnered all-conference selections. Roundup junior Meghan Eiselein will miss the early portion of the season with a knee injury, so it will be up to junior Blythe Sealey to lead the Panthers in the early going.
Box Elder captured its second consecutive title with a narrow win over Roy-Winifred in the championship last year, but the Bears lost five seniors, including Lilly Gopher. Also leaving Box Elder was all-state selection Joelnell Momberg, a University of Montana commit who moved to Spokane with stepfather and Box Elder coach Joel Rosette. The Bears have plenty of turnover from last year’s title team.
Roy-Winifred will be back with a vengeance this season after last year’s title-game loss. The Outlaws bring back a pair of all-state selections that stand 6-foot or taller in senior Dyauni Boyce and sophomore Madeline Heggem. Add in senior point guard Olivia Geer and the Outlaws have all the makings of a title contender.
Scobey was a surprise team last year, but the Spartans aren’t going to catch anybody off guard this year after a third-place finish in 2019. Scobey brings back all-state guard Kortney Nelson and all-conference selections Gracee Lekvold and Ryleigh Backman. The Spartans will have some competition in the Eastern C, though, as Westby-Grenora brings back all-state senior Jenna Rust and all-conference sophomore Elizabeth Field, and Savage returns all-state selections Kianna Miller and Haylie Conradsen. Plentywood sophomore Liv Wangerin and Froid-Medicine Lake junior Sydney Dethman are two others in the division to watch, as they could lead their teams on postseason runs.
2019 Southern C divisional champion Ekalaka has pieces back, including the LaBree twins, Heather and Hannah, as well as Whitney Kittlemann. Wibaux, which finished second to Ekalaka in the Southern C last year, has an impressive list of returnees, too. Seniors Marni Schieffer, Layni Schieffer and Madison Bakken have their sights set on another State C tournament appearance. One name to watch for the future – Melstone sophomore Draya Wacker. Wacker was an all-state selection her eighth grade and freshman seasons and has the green light from anywhere inside half court. She’s joined by returning all-conference selections Kaigen Roskelley and Kayla Kombol. There is no shortage of challengers for the Class C girls throne this season.
Games to watch this weekend:
- Hardin vs. Hamilton, Friday
- Manhattan Christian vs. Manhattan, Friday
- Westby-Grenora vs. Scobey, Saturday
- Harlowton vs. Park City, Saturday
- Columbia Falls vs. Glendive, Friday
- Browning vs. Frenchtown, Friday
- Hardin vs. Frenchtown, Saturday
- Westby-Grenora vs. Scobey, Saturday