By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre High boys basketball team is playing its best basketball of the season right now, according to veteran head coach Mark West.
Still, no matter what the Ponies have done up to this point in the year, it won't matter if they cannot find a way to get over the hump that is the Central A divisional basketball tournament.
For the second straight season, the Ponies enter the Central A divisional tournament favored to qualify for the Class A state tournament. The difference this season is that the Ponies aren't just on another road trip, they're on a mission.
A mission that begins tonight at the Butte Civic Center at 6 p.m. when the Ponies take on the host Butte Central Maroons in first round action.
"We are definitely on a mission to make it to the state tournament," said HHS senior guard Trent Normandy recently. "The seniors on this team have been waiting for this for three years and now we have to go down there and make it happen."
Said West: "I definitely think we are playing our basketball at exactly the right time. And I think the kids are very focused and determined. But just like last season, this tournament is very wide open and every team in the bracket is dangerous right now."
The Ponies come into tonight's contest with a 12-6 record. They finished second in the final Central A standings. Meanwhile, the Maroons finished the year at 6-12. But West will be the first to admit that the undersized and undermatched Butte Central team that the Ponies will face tonight is a very dangerous first-round opponent, regardless of its record.
"First off, it is always tough to play a divisional tournament game against a team on its home floor," West said. "The scary thing is that everything else is in our favor. Butte Central lacks size and they don't shoot it from the outside particularly well. On paper, everybody would say that this is a game we should definitely win."
Indeed, the Ponies will have a size advantage against the Maroons tonight and that is something West is hoping his team can exploit. Butte Central does not suit up a player over 6-0, while the Ponies will counter with the conference's leading scorer in 6-2 Cory Brothers, as well as 6-5 junior center Tyler Hedalen. Havre will also use 6-8 senior center Bret Magelssen and 6-0 sophomore Jared Weigel off the bench.
"Still, from what I have seen, Butte Central is playing much better basketball now than it was at the beginning of the season," West said. "And they make life tough for teams defensively because they play a very conservative, slow-down type of offense. They use the Princeton offense and they just try to take you an offensive rhythm."
If Havre gets by the Maroons, the tournament will get much tougher for the Ponies. Should the Ponies prevail tonight, they will play the winner of Dillon (11-7) and Anaconda (7-11).
While the Ponies already own a victory over the Copperheads at the Central A tip-off tournament back in December, it is the Beavers who West believes might be the favorite to capture the Central A title. Dillon comes into the Central A tourney under similar circumstances as its situation in 2003.
Last year, the Beavers played the entire season without junior all-state forward Torrey Thomas, who was sidelined with a dislocated hip. But Thomas was cleared to play just before the divisional tournament and the Beavers steamrolled their way to Saturday's championship game and a state tourney berth.
This season the Beavers have played without 6-8 center Kevin Dyk for most of the year, but Dyk is again healthy and the Beavers come into the tournament at full strength for the first time all year.
On the other side of the bracket, top-seeded Belgrade (14-4) will square off against Lewistown (1-17) and Livingston (10-8) will face the Browning Indians (9-9).
"Dillon is by far the hottest team right now because they got their big guy back," West said. "And Belgrade has been consistent all season long."
"The game between Browning and Livingston is definitely a toss up. Both teams are athletic and talented, but they haven't played as well as people thought they would at different times this season," West added.
There will be three state tournament berths up for grabs this weekend in Butte. It has been a while since the Ponies have played in a state tournament, but if a couple of key things happen this weekend, West feels confident that his team can earn a trip to Belgrade in two weeks.
"We just need to execute our offense like we have the last three weeks," West said. "Right now I feel like we are playing good defense and we are rebounding better than we have all year. If we can stay within our game plan offensively, then we will have a good chance to have some success this weekend, because things are really wide open and it is anybody's tournament to win."
The Central A tournament will get under way today at 12:30 p.m. The Havre High/Butte Central first round matchup is slated to tip off at 6:30 p.m. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM and all the action this weekend will take place at the Butte Civic Center.
Central A Divisional Tournament
12:30 p.m - Belgrade (14-4) vs Lewistown (1-17)
2 p.m. - Livingston (10-8) vs Browning (9-9)
6:30 p.m. - Havre (12-6) vs Butte Central (6-12)
8 p.m. - Dillon (11-7) vs Anaconda (7-11)