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What I'll be watching: Title contenders meet early

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Posted at 4:28 PM, Dec 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-12 19:53:10-05

The high school basketball season revs up another gear this weekend, as all four classifications hit the hardwood.

Class AA gets its season going on Thursday. It will be the first game at the Class AA level for Belgrade, as the Panthers look to start the 2019-20 season off on the right foot. Two of the presumptive preseason favorites will meet in Billings on Saturday afternoon for an early season showdown.

With all the tipoff tournaments taking place, don't lose track of the games taking place on campuses this weekend. That includes Scobey visiting Fairview in a rematch of the 2019 State C boys consolation game.

Two-time defending Class A girls champion Havre won't waste any time jumping into the meat of its schedule, as two of its toughest games of the season take place this weekend. The same holds true for the Columbus girls, as the Cougars will face a pair of state tournament-caliber teams.

Tipoff tournaments around the state feature some intriguing matchups that we likely won't see until postseason play. That and more highlight what I'll be watching on a busy hoops weekend.

Reminder: Scores, stats, record-breaking performances and story ideas can be submitted to sports@ktvh.com.

Boys

Class AA

  • Belgrade will be playing its first game as a Class AA school on Thursday night, as the Panthers travel to Butte to face the Bulldogs. Both teams are looking to get the 2019-20 season started in the right direction. It’s tough to forecast what Belgrade will be capable of in Class AA this season. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are looking to turn things around under new head coach Matt Luedtke. Either way, it’s the dawn of a new era on Thursday evening.
  • One of the most highly anticipated matchups in the early season takes place in Billings on Saturday, as Billings West hosts Missoula Hellgate. Billings West figures to be in the hunt for the Eastern AA title, while Missoula Hellgate is the preseason favorite in the Western AA and a top contender for the state title. There could be plenty of points put on the scoreboard on Saturday, as both teams can fill it up. This will be a good indication of where both teams stand before the holiday break.

Class A

  • Frenchtown and Whitefish both suffered setbacks on the season’s opening weekend. Whitefish will travel to Frenchtown on Friday with a chance to pick up a win against a Western A foe, although the two are in separate districts. Whitefish hung around with Butte Central last weekend and should be a contender in the Western A, while Frenchtown beat Browning before taking a licking from Hardin. These two teams will likely be battling for a state tournament spot later this season.
  • Billings Central gets its state title defense under way on Friday night when the Rams host Sidney. Sidney finished at the bottom of the conference last season, but the Eagles will have an opportunity to pick up a huge win early in the year. Billings Central is replacing most of its roster, which leaves us with question marks until the Rams hit the floor. Is Central still in the upper echelon of Class A, or have the Rams returned to the pack?

Class B

  • Shelby has high expectations this year, although the Coyotes will be without Tanner Parsons, a returning all-state selection, until after the holiday break. Shelby, though, can still pick up a resume-building win on Friday night when the Coyotes host Missoula Loyola. Loyola finished runner-up to Bigfork last year but is replacing some key pieces from that team. Is Loyola still among the best in Class B? Is Shelby a legitimate title threat? Both teams will have answers by the end of Friday’s contest.
  • Fairfield is another team in the Northern B with state-title aspirations. The Eagles play Jefferson on Friday night in what should be an intriguing matchup. Jefferson has the athletes to get up and down the floor with Fairfield, but can the Panthers contain Keeley Bake and make Fairfield’s other players beat them? Avery Stiles could be the answer for Jefferson, as he’s capable of lock-down defense. Both Fairfield and Jefferson are teams to keep an eye on throughout the season in their respective districts.

Class C

  • Fairview has quite the weekend ahead. The Warriors, who have had little time to recover after winning an 8-Man football state title, will face possibly their two toughest tests of the season on Thursday and Friday when they host Westby-Grenora and Scobey. Westby-Grenora finished third in the Eastern C last season and missed out on the state tournament, but the Thunder will again be competitive. Darian Holocek and Ridge Sargent give the Thunder a one-two punch that can give defenses fits. The Thunder should contend for an Eastern C title this season.
  • Fairview’s loaded senior roster has its work cut out for it on Friday, too. The Warriors will host Scobey, last year’s Eastern C champion and third-place finisher at the State C tournament. It’s a rematch of last year’s divisional title and the third-place game at the state tournament. Scobey has an extremely talented and deep roster returning, too, which should lead to a phenomenal game. Friday’s winner could wake up on Saturday as the favorite in Class C.

Girls

Class AA

  • Bozeman has a gauntlet of a schedule to open its season. The Hawks welcome in three-time defending State AA champion Helena High on Thursday, then they host Helena Capital on Saturday. There’s quite a bit of turnover on Helena High’s roster, as the Bengals lost their top four scorers from last season. Emily Feller and McKayla Kloker will be looked to more often this season. Helena High has given us no reason to doubt them in recent years, so that will remain the same until there’s a chink in the armor.
  • Helena Capital could be a monster in Class AA this season. Bozeman will likely rely upon juniors Addi Ekstrom and Macy Mayer, the Hawks’ leading returning scorers. But the juniors for Helena Capital will cause havoc. Dani and Paige Bartsch, the twin sisters standing taller than 6-foot, will look to lead the Bruins to a statement victory to open the season. How this young Bozeman team develops throughout the season will be something to watch.

Class A

  • Two-time defending State A champion Havre gets into the meat of its schedule right away. The Blue Ponies host Laurel on Friday and travel to Billings Central on Saturday. Laurel, last year’s fourth-place finisher at the State A tournament, will need to replace the scoring punch that evaporated when Mya Hansen enrolled at Billings Central. The Locomotives will likely still bring a hard-nosed style of play and return a handful of players from last year’s team, including 2018-19 all-conference selection Gracey Willis.
  • But that won’t be Havre’s toughest game of the weekend. On paper, Billings Central may have the best roster in Class A. The Rams have all-state selections Mya Hansen and Olivia Moten-Schell, and then add in all-conference picks Isabelle Erickson, Melissa Hanser and Solei Elletson and Billings Central has five returning all-conference picks. Havre, led by two-time all-state guard and University of Montana commit Kyndal Keller, won’t have an easy path to an Eastern A title, let alone the State A title. Don’t have plans on Saturday evening? Get to Billings Central to watch what could be a preview of the State A girls championship game in March.

Class B

  • Columbus is yet another team with a grueling schedule this weekend. The Cougars will face Forsyth Friday and Glasgow Saturday at the Wooden Tipoff Basketball Tournament in Red Lodge. Columbus is coming off a Southern B title, but head coach Jeromey Burke expects Forsyth to be in contention for that crown this year behind Lindsey Hein and Jordan Cookman. This could just be a preview of what’s to come at the Southern B divisional tournament.
  • Glasgow narrowly missed the state tournament out of the Northern B last season, but the Scotties have their sights set on the state tournament this year with two all-conference players returning. They’ll get a matchup with 2019 Southern B champion Columbus on Saturday in Red Lodge. Not only will this weekend tell us a lot about what to expect out of the Columbus girls this season, but also just how good Forsyth and Glasgow could be this season.

Class C

  • Ekalaka has made back-to-back State C girls tournament appearances and the Bulldogs look primed for a third consecutive trip. Ekalaka gets its season started on Friday against Bridger, which finished third in the Southern C last year, narrowly missing out on the state tournament. These teams could again be battling at the Southern C divisional this season. If Ekalaka is still the class of the division, it handles business this weekend. Bridger, though, hopes to submit its name into the hat of divisional title contenders.
  • Roy-Winifred should be in contention for the Class C girls state championship come March, as it brings back three all-conference selections, two of which were all-state picks. The Outlaws get their season going at the Holiday Showcase in Lewistown this weekend, where they’ll meet Shields Valley on Saturday. Shields Valley lost in a challenge game to miss out on the Western C divisional tournament last year, but the Rebels bring back their entire roster except one player. Although Shields Valley will have girls out with injury until after the holiday break at least, this is a chance for the Rebels to see top-notch competition. If healthy late in the season, expect Shields Valley to compete for a district title and possibly a berth at the state tournament.