By George Ferguson
All season long, the Havre High boys basketball team could be compared to the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - one team with two very different personalities.
There is the Pony team that was crushed by Glasgow twice and annhilated by close to 50 points by Great Falls High - we'll call him the benevolent Dr. Jekyll.
Then there is the team that people are afraid to play. The team that beat Great Falls High at home, dealt Harlem its only loss this season and defeated Browning twice - definitely the fearsome Mr. Hyde.
Over the course of the last few weeks, Hyde looks like he is here to stay. Havre won five of its final six regular season contests en route to a surprising regular season conference title and a number-one seed at today's Central A Divisional tournament in Belgrade.
Havre is riding some serious momentum coming into the tourney and has head coach Mark West resorting to a few cliches.
"The old saying is that you want to be playing your best basketball when you hit the postseason," West said. "And the fact is, I believe we really are playing our best basketball right now. I think the way in which we won at Browning really showed me that."
It hasn't happened overnight, but the things that make the Ponies a good team have been happening on a more consistent basis.
"Our shooting and guard play has gotten so much better and that is the biggest key," West said. "We have been a good defensive team all year and at times we were solid rebounding the ball, but our guard play is something that has taken a while to come along."
If this season has been Jekyll and Hyde for Havre, the last two years could be seen as the same. The Ponies entered the divisional tournament a year ago with a 4-14 overall record, but won a pair of games and nearly qualifed for the state tournament. This year Havre comes in with a 10-8 mark including some remarkable wins in what has been a tumultuous schedule.
"It is a minor miracle that we have ten wins," West said. "That isn't to say that we aren't a good team, but we have played one of the toughest schedules you could ever have."
Despite the brutal schedule he faced before the start of the season, West isn't surprised by the one-year turnaround either.
"I am the first to say that we owe three guys a lot of credit for what kind of a team we have been this season," West said. "Cory Brothers, Ryan Lusin and Curt Leeds worked as hard as anyone I have ever seen this summer. Without those guys, we would not be where we are right now."
Where the Ponies are right now is facing a first round matchup with the Livingston Runnin' Rangers in tonight's session of the tourney. Havre went from a long-shot as a state tournament contender to the favorite in just over a month, but West doesn't see any additional pressure on his team from having the top seed.
"I think the kids are mentally prepared to play," West said. "We don't feel any more pressure than any of the other teams in this tournament. I think any of the top six teams are feeling the same coming in because we are all pretty even. With the fact that there are only two state tournament berths up for grabs, every game is going to be very intense."
Only two teams will leave Belgrade with a chance to come back two weeks later for the Class A State tournament.
Realistically, six teams have a legitimate shot at knocking each other off this weekend according to West. Havre is joined by Lewistown (11-7), Browning (10-8), Belgrade (10-8), Dillon (9-9) and Anaconda (9-9) all as potential favorites this weekend. The Ponies have wins over Lewistown, Browning and Belgrade this season.
"I think this thing could be wide open," West said. "What is interesting is that Dillon was favored to win this conference, but they lost Torrey Thomas and now they have him back. I think him playing this weekend changes the whole complexion of the tournament."
Indeed, if the Ponies are to get by Livingston today, they will await the winner of the Belgrade-Dillon matchup. West admits that either team will be a major roadblock in the road back to Belgrade.
"That is an interesting game," West said. "Dillon and Belgrade are both strong teams and I think they matchup well with each other. Nobody is going to want to play them in their house in a tournament atmosphere either."
But before Havre can start worrying about Panthers or the Beavers, they will have to contend with Runnin' Rangers. Havre trounced Livingston (4-14) at the Central A tip-off tournament in early December. But West still believes that his team will still have to be playing at a very high level when they hit the floor tonight.
"I guarantee you that Livingston is a better team right now than when we saw them at the beginning of the season," West said. "But we just have to stick to what got us here. For us to be successful in this tournament we have to defend at a high level and rebound the basketball. You can still win games with those two keys even if your offense isn't on."
The tournament begins today at 1 p.m. with Lewistown squaring off against Butte Central. At 2:30 p.m., Browning will play Anaconda. The night session begins with the Ponies and Rangers followed by the night-cap between Dillon and Belgrade.
"I think that we have put ourself in a very good position," West said. "Everything we have worked for the last few weeks has paid off. If we can put together a good run in the this tournament, I believe we can get to the state tournament. But as everyone, knows the postseason means that anything can happen."
Tonight's game between Havre and Livingston is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. at the Belgrade Special Events Center. All the Havre High games can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.