By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ email@example.com
The Havre High girls basketball team is hot right now. If you need proof, look no further than the fact that the Ponies enter this weekend's games undefeated on the young season and joined at the hip with the Whitefish Bulldogs as Class A's No. 1-ranked team.
The fact that his team is playing good basketball at the moment is not lost on HHS head coach Dennis Murphy.
And while Murphy admits that his team is much farther ahead than he thought it would be at this point, he is also keenly aware of the challenge that lies ahead this weekend, beginning tonight when the Ponies host third-ranked Class AA C.M. Russell at 7:30 p.m., and face Lewistown on Saturday also at 7:30 p.m.
"Our team has played four-straight games of really solid basketball to start the season," Murphy said. "But I told the girls that this weekend is the next step up the mountain for us."
"CMR and Lewistown are both outstanding basketball teams and this may actually be two rungs up the ladder in competition for us."
The Rustlers (3-0) come into Havre with one of the most improved teams in all of Class AA girls basketball thanks largely to the play of senior post players Erin Goodman and Joslin Swartz. The inside duo is complemented by the guard tandem of sophomore Shantel Marquis and sharpshooting Shelby Danelson, along with a host of talented supporting players.
"The Rustlers have a very talented team. When it's all said and done, they are going to make a great run this season," Murphy said. "A lot of those kids are playing in their third year together. They have a real nice mix of experienced post players and talented young guards. They are a very dangerous team."
Last season, the Ponies did not stand up to CMR's inside presence of Goodman and Swartz in either contest. And they did not handle the Rustlers' pressure defense very well either, as turnovers killed Havre in both meetings. But this is a new season and a different Havre High team. With that in mind, Murphy expects that the game between Havre and CMR will be much different tonight.
"I think that we have a lot more experience at the guard position this season and we can handle their defensive pressure," Murphy said. "We also have a lot more scoring potential and that will help immensely.
"Obviously defense and rebounding will be our main concern because they are so much more physical than we are," Murphy added. "But we have changed some things for this game and we are going to try to put our kids in the best possible position to defend them and limit their easy scoring opportunities."
What makes this weekend so daunting for the top-ranked Blue Ponies isn't just the fact that they will host a Class AA powerhouse in CMR tonight. Twenty-four hours later, Havre will be in Lewistown taking on a conference rival and a team that Murphy said may be the best team in Class A basketball, regardless of what the rankings say.
"Lewistown is by far the most talented and athletic team in Class A in my opinion," Murphy said. "They have six seniors and some tremendous players. They also have a winning attitude right now, which was obvious from the volleyball season.
"We have not played particularly well in Lewistown recently," Murphy added. "So this will be a big challenge for our basketball team."
The Eagles are 3-1 on the young season and unranked in the latest Class A power poll. Regardless, Lewistown is loaded with talent, led by senior Lesly Richter. Richter enters this weekend shooting an astounding 70 percent from the field. She is joined by solid players in Kayla Rettig, Shaylynn Conroy, Brenda Bassett and Lauren Tognetti.
Like the Ponies' previous matchups with CMR, last season was not kind to Havre when it came to facing the Eagles. But just as he is looking forward to seeing the Rustlers tonight, Murphy is equally excited about the challenge of facing Lewistown for the first time this season.
"This is a great time to face these two teams," Murphy said. "We are playing good basketball right now, and I think our girls have a lot of confidence.
"I think that both of these games are absolutely winnable for us," Murphy added. "However, it will take our best basketball of the season to do that. One thing I am certain of is that our effort and intensity will be there just as it has in the last four games. Hopefully, we will be able to translate that into good basketball."
Tonight's matchup between Havre High and CMR is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Havre High gymnasium. Saturday's game between Lewistown and Havre will also tipoff at 7:30 p.m.