By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Usually the space atop any story previewing the girls 9C basketball season is reserved for the Big Sandy Pioneers. For more than a decade the Pioneers have been the perennial power in the 9C and the overwhelming favorite each and every year. But not this year.
Welcome to the new District 9C, one in which the Pioneers are in a massive rebuilding process and will do so without the familiar voice and pony tail of coach Roy Lackner.
After trying to coach both the boys and girls varsity teams last season, Lackner had to give up one this season and chose to stay with the boys team.
The unenviable task of filling Lackner's shoes belongs to Robin Pearson, who must replace graduated all-state players Sheena Darlington, now at MSU-Northern, and Lindsay Danreuther.
Easing the process is all-conference guard Ashley Goodian. The senior is the most dangerous outside shooter in the 9C, but will have to shoulder much of the offensive load this season. Big Sandy has some solid younger players in Naomi Williams, Sarah Yirsa and Shalayna Pearson.
With Big Sandy trying to rebuild, it begs the question, who is this year's favorite in the District 9C?
That honor goes to coach Liz (Olsen) Campbell's Blue Sky Eagles. Blue Sky returns a host of players from last year's team that finished 17-5 and third in the 9C tournament.
"We definitely have the most players coming back," Campbell said. "Returning that kind of experience would lead people to that conclusion."
It's tough to believe considering, Blue Sky lost a trio of starters from last year in all-state center Jessica Patrick, forward Heather Wendland and point guard Natalie Strissel. However, the Eagles return starters Lindsay Anderson and Kaila Warren along with top reserves Holly Haas, Kile Patrick, Ashley Gatzemeier and Brianne Horinek.
Both Anderson and Warren can score ina myriad of ways and Olsen will look to Anderson to shoulder much of the leadership responsibilities.
"She's our leader," Olsen said. "She's so versatile. We've already had some injuries in the post and she's going to have to play down low for awhile. The biggest thing that makes her a good leader is that she doesn't try to do everything herself. She likes to make assists and make her teammates around her better."
The Eagles are far from the biggest team in the league, but they might be one of the quickest with Anderson, Warren and Haas. The overall quickness and speed has forced Olsen to change coaching philosophies.
"I've had to change my style this year," Olsen said. "We're going to be a running team this year. I'm more comfortable with walking it up and getting into a set offense, but this team is much better when it gets out and run."
Overall, the lack of height in the 9C will have most teams playing a full-court, up-tempo style. It will be a stark change for another conference favorite the KG KouGars.
Under new head coach and former MSU-Northern player Jennifer (Young) Wendland, KG is going from a half-court team to a full-court team.
"We're going to be a fast break team and push the ball at all times," Wendland said. "I don't like slow down basketball."
The new style is taking some getting used to, but Wendland has some experienced players who should make KG a contender for the 9C title.
"The girls are working really hard," Wendland said. "They're starting to catch on to the style we want to play."
The new style should benefit all-everything guard Cady Arifin, who returns for her senior season after leading the KouGars in most offensive categories last season. As she goes, so goes KG.
"I expect Cady to carry most of the load offensively," Wendland said. "She's our leader out there. Most of the time she leads by example, so if she's out there giving it her all, the other girls follow."
But KG is far from a one-woman show. The KouGars return three seniors in Mandy Rambo, Casie Toner and Heidi Donoven, along with junior Whitney Hanson.
"We've got a good group of seniors," Wendland said. "Mandy Rambo has stepped it up big time. She really gets us going in practice."
Wendland will also start freshman Kate Vosen, who she said has looked really strong early.
With plenty of returning players and a new aggressive style of basketball, people in KG have high expectations for this year's team, including Wendland.
"I expect us to be one of the top two teams in the conference," she said. "Blue Sky is going to be tough and Turner should be good too. Our goal is to win the district tournament and go to divisionals and then possibly onto state. If we keep working hard, we can accomplish it."
People familiar with the 9C know that Wendland didn't misspeak when she said Turner will be contending for a conference title.
The Tornadoes return several players from last year's team that finished 6-14. One of the main reason's for optimism is the continuing improvement of center Ashley Van Voast. The 5-11 sophomore is one of the tallest players in the 9C and was Turner's second-leading scorer and rebounder last season.
Three other starters return for the Tornadoes, including sophomore forward Cheryl Cowan, who led Turner in scoring at 10 points per game. The backcourt of senior Britney Jones and sophomore Kelsey Klindworth returns, while reserves Celeste Hedegaard and Jade Olszewski are also back.
"Turner has a lot of height, which is something the rest of the teams don't have," Olsen said. "Van Voast was good last year as freshman and she's only getting better."
The remainder of the teams in the 9C are also trying to rebuild especially in Box Elder, where coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum must replace 80 percent of the team's offense from last season. Gone are seniors Tami Infante and Brandy Lawrence, while junior Ann Favel transferred to a school in Washington.
Box Elder does return junior forward Codi Raining Bird and junior point guard Rebecca Eagleman. The Bears also return sophomore Tasha Parisian and junior Gerri Eagleman, while adding sophomore Shaneen Raining Bird, who transferred from Rocky Boy. Transfers have also hurt the Bears, freshman twins Tori and Loni Belcourt transferred to Rocky Boy following volleyball season.
However, Schawb-Hannum's teams always play hard and seem to do best when most teams count them out.
Two other schools that could upset some teams this season are the Rocky Boy Morning Stars and Hays Lodge-Pole Thunderbirds.
Rocky Boy returns Marty Rae Stiffarm, Allie Sunchild and Shana St. Pierre, while adding the Belcourt twins. The T-Birds return the tallest player in the 9C in 6-2 Colette Hawley and junior shooting guard Karissa Kirkaldie.
But with so much change in the conference, a lot must be proven before the district tournament rolls around, even for the conference favorites.
"There is an added excitement to be looked at as one of the top teams in the district," Olsen said. "But that kind of confidence at this point in the season is just arrogance until we back it up on the floor. We need to prove ourselves just like all the teams in the district."