By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre Blue Pony boys basketball team opens it's 2003-2004 campaign tonight at the Central A Tipoff tournament in Anaconda. Normally that statement wouldn't mean too much, but as the Ponies prepare to square off against the Belgrade Panthers there is a lot going on around head coach Mark West's team.
A lot has happened to the Blue Pony basketball program since its season came to an end last February at the Central A Divisional tournament in Belgrade. The Ponies rallied to win the regular season conference championship, but as quickly as the success came, it faded into the Montana sky as the top-seeded Ponies were bounced from the divisional tournament by Lewistown on Saturday morning.
Graduation has also changed the face of the Blue Pony team. Gone is a talented group of seniors and most of the Ponies' inside presence. Havre lost seniors Ryan Lusin, Justin Kegel, Curt Leeds, Eric Ward, as well as point guard Steve Heberly.
But all is not lost, as Havre returns three starters from last year's team, including Gatorade Player of the Year nominee Cory Brothers, who developed into one of the state's top players as a junior.
Now a new set of juniors and sophomores will join Brothers and starting guards Trent Normandy and Marc Mariani to form a possibly very explosive Havre High team.
"We are all very excited about this season," West said. "We have three starters coming back and a lot of talented juniors and sophomores.
"I think it will take some time for this team to gel, but if we get better at the little things we need to do and this group plays well together, we could have a very good season."
Aside from the three starters that the Ponies return, only senior Brett Magelssen is back from last year's varsity team. Moving up to the varsity roster this season will be juniors Tyler Hedalen, Tyson Parman, Gary Wagner and Patrick Wirtzberger, along with sophomores Jeremy Giardina and Jared Weigel.
"We have a lot of good athletes on this team, but they don't have much varsity experience," West said. "We definitely need Corey, Trent and Marc to be the leaders of this team and fill that role right away."
Last season the Ponies were brilliant at times offensively. Brothers carried the bulk of the scoring load and according to West, Brothers has continued to work on his game all summer and has become a more complete player.
"Cory has always been a hard worker and he continued to do that this off season," West said. "His outside shot and his passing have gotten much better, but he has also developed a short-range jumper that will make him even more dangerous as a scorer."
While Brothers is considered by many to be one of the top high school basketball players in Montana, he didn't do it alone last season. The Ponies success last season was helped by having strong post play from Lusin, Kegel and Leeds. Havre's interior this season will be filled by all new players which West admits is one of his early season concerns.
"Last season we had a bunch of kids that were able to play very physical and we need that because of the schedule we play," West said. "We need these kids to be able to step up and play that kind of basketball now if we are going to be successful.
"We have to be a good, physical team on the defensive end of the floor and we have to rebound the ball well," he added.
Offensively, West believes his team should be a very good shooting team and should be able to play a very up-tempo brand of basketball.
Havre will find out just what it does well and what it needs to improve on this weekend in Anaconda. The Ponies take on two very athletic teams in Belgrade and Anaconda. The Panthers are led by an athletic guard in senior Caleb Salisbury and the Copperheads have five players at 6-4 or better. Many have picked the Copperheads to contend for the league title in what figures to be a very competitive Central A race.
"We have two very difficult games this weekend," West said. "Belgrade is not a big team but they have great guards and they always play good defense.
"And Anaconda is definitely a team on the rise," West added. "They are huge inside and they will present some definite matchup problems for us."
And while the season hasn't even begun yet, West is looking at this weekend very realistically.
"Everybody wants to open their season on a winning note, but I would be happy with a split this weekend," West said. "It is early and nobody will be playing their best basketball. On top of that, it will be a big test for us to play Anaconda on their home floor. Hopefully, the kids can go down there and we can execute well and play quality basketball. Then we'll see where we're at."
The Ponies will open their season tonight at 5 p.m. against Belgrade and Saturday they will face the Copperheads at 3:15 p.m. All of the action will take place in Anaconda.