By George Ferguson
And down the stretch they come. The end of the 2002-03 high school winter sports season is nearing just as the weather is turning worse. This week marks the beginning of the high school wrestling post season and boys and girls basketball is less than three weeks from finishing their regular season schedule.
In Great Falls, the Class AA Eastern seeding tournament in wrestling will be held and Butte will host the Western AA seeding tournament. Meanwhile, the Havre Blue Ponies will head to Butte this Friday for the Central A Divisional tournament. The Ponies, who finished second at the divisional and state A tournaments last season, will enter this year's tourney ranked number nine in the latest Class A power poll. The only other Central A team ranked among the top ten is Anaconda at number eight.
Havre's Jeff Hedges will enter the tournament as the top seed at 112 pounds and is ranked number two in Class A. The only other ranked wrestler in Hedges' draw is the Copperheads' Greg Smith who is currently ranked fifth. At 98 pounds, freshman Gray Chagnon is the only ranked Central A wrestler. Chad Seely is currently ranked fifth at 171 pounds and will have a tough match if he should reach the finals because Browning's Mike Burns is ranked right ahead of him in fourth. The tournament will feature only two top-ranked wrestlers. Belgrade's Jake Kallestad is ranked number one at 189 pounds - has just one loss all year and Anaconda's Jason Andreoli is ranked first at 130 pounds.
The Chinook Sugarbeeters should also be favored to finish well at the Northeast B-C divisional tournament in Conrad. The Beeters have had a solid season and have ranked wrestlers in Matt Finley at 112 pounds, Curt Solberg at 119, Kris Parsons at 130, Jeremy Painter at 135, Howie Miller at 152 and Eric Hinebaugh at 171. The Beeters will have a tough road if they are going to bring home a divisional title, as they will have to upset the top-ranked host Cowboys.
All of the wrestling roads around the state this weekend will lead to the All-Class State wrestling tournament Feb. 7-8 at the Metra in Billings.
They're called free throws. But for the Chester boys basketball team, there is nothing free about them.
To say that the Coyotes struggle shooting free throws would be like saying Rich Gannon struggled a little in the Super Bowl.
On the season, Chester (10-4) is shooting right around 50 percent from the free throw line, a percentage only Shaquille O'Neal could be proud of.
"It's really frustrating," said head coach Willie Schlepp. "With the exception of our loss to Belt, every other one of our losses could have been wins if we just make our free throws."
Indeed, in Chester's 69-64 loss to J-I, the Coyotes shot a paltry 5-15 from the charity stripe. Even in the 85-61 loss to Belt, Chester didn't help itself by shooting 7-24 from the foul line.
It's not no big deal to shoot 50 percent from the foul-line when you shoot less than 10 free throws a game. But the Coyotes average almost 20 attempts from the foul-line and to make only half - well it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that Chester is losing some valuable points.
"I just don't understand it," Schlepp said. "I've tried every drill I can think of, it's not like we're not good shooters because we are, we just can't seem to make free throws."
Schlepp will be the first to admit his team must mend their foul-shooting woes before tournament time. Chester is second in the District 10C behind third-ranked Dutton-Brady, who they don't play during the regular season. With the way the season is playing out, the Coyotes could meet the Cardinals for the first time in the 10C championship, but to do that, they must make their free throws.
"If we have any hopes of getting out of districts or divisionals, we have to start making our free throws," Schlepp said.
In District 9C boys basketball, this weekend could decide the regular season title. The Box Elder Bears are 13-2 and 11-2 in league play and hold a game and a half lead on the second place Blue Sky Eagles. The Bears and Eagles will hook up on Saturday night in Box Elder and the game could decide who will receive the first round bye at the 9C tourney in Havre in a couple of weeks.
Big Sandy and Hays-Lodge Pole are currently in a dead tie for third place right now and both have critical road games this weekend. KG and Turner are currently tied for fourth place, but that tie will be broken this weekend when the two teams square off in Gildford on Saturday night.
The girls race in District 9C is a little more settled with the real battle over fourth place. Big Sandy, 14-0 overall and 12-0 in league play, barring a major collapse should finish first in the 9C. The Blue Sky Eagles are in second with a 10-2 league mark and 12-2 overall record. The Pioneers earned a season sweep over the Eagles already this season so even if they somehow ended up tied, Big Sandy would hold all tiebreakers and earn the top seed at the district tournament.
The Box Elder Bears are three games behind Blue Sky with an 8-5 league record, but have a firm grasp on third. KG and Turner both tied with league records of just 4-8 will battle the remaining weeks for the fourth seed at the 9C tournament in Havre.
- Sports Editor Ryan Divish contributed to this story