By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
To be perfectly honest, and most coaches would agree, last year's District 9C girls basketball conference was not one of its strongest in recent memory.
Last year, 9C squads featured far too many sophomores and few too many seniors on the floor during games. But this year looks to be different as most teams feature a bevy of upperclassmen with the league as balanced as it has been years.
Oh, and there is also the return of the winningest 9C girls basketball coach after a one-year sabbatical.
Long time coach Roy Lackner returns to the Big Sandy girls program after taking last year off to focus on the boys team. He will coach both teams this year, and his presence alone makes the Pioneer girls a team nobody wants to play.
"Having Roy back will make Big Sandy better at the end," said Box Elder head coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum. "They still have to get readjusted to his coaching style, but they will be good."
Even Lackner admits that his girls team is learning as it goes. The Pioneers already played two games last weekend, finishing 1-1 with a win over Saco and a tough loss to Belt.
"You can't get ready to play in 10 days of practice," Lackner said. "We're having to relearn a lot of stuff, and it takes some time for the girls to get used to how I do things."
Lackner has a solid group of players returning from last year's team. The Pioneers lost only one player from last year - Ashley Goodian - but she pretty much did everything but drive the bus for Big Sandy.
This year, Lackner will look to junior Naomi Williams and sophomore Shalayna Pearson to provide scoring inside, while Havre High transfer Kacy Herron, senior Sandy Zeiger, and junior Sarah Yirsa will handle the ball.
But even with a solid inside game, don't think for a second that Lackner is going to change his style.
"Whether we can or cannot, we're going to run and press," Lackner said. "We need to learn to play up tempo."
Never one to be lacking confidence, Lackner is optimistic about this season.
"I think we can be in the top three in the conference," he said. "And we expect to be playing on Saturday night at the district tournament."
In an informal coaches' poll, the preseason favorite would have to be Blue Sky/J-I with Rocky Boy right behind.
Both teams qualified for last year's Northern C Divisional and return several players from those teams.
The new co-op between Blue Sky and J-I helped offset the loss of several key contributors to the Eagles success last season. Gone are shooting guard Lindsay Anderson and point guard Holly Haas to graduation. But their loss is offset by the addition of J-I's Hannah Pimley.
The 5-10 Pimley was the Rams leading scorer last season and should contribute to the already solid core of returnees led by seniors Kaila Warren, Robyn Schnitzmeier and Kile and Kim Patrick.
"The girls have really made the transition with the co-op very easy," said Blue Sky/J-I head coach Liz Campbell. "They are just good kids and I think having volleyball first helped."
As for her team, Campbell isn't big on making any predictions, but she does recognize the talent and depth she possesses.
"Talent-wise we're right there near the top," she said. "We're deeper than last year. I think if we can get the girls to play together, we can be playing Saturday night at the district tournament."
One team that wasn't really expected on Saturday night of last year's 9C tourney was the Rocky Boy Morning Stars. Led by a pair of precocious freshmen twins and a veteran forward, Rocky Boy finished third in the tournament and knocked off KG in the 9C challenge game to advance to divisionals for the first time in over a decade.
Fortunately for Rocky Boy and new head coach Deb Lamere, the two twins - Loni and Tori Belcourt - are back for their sophomore season. Unfortunately, senior forward Marty Rae Stiffarm transferred to Harlem. But that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare
Rocky Boy gets Brittany St. Pierre back after taking last season off, and also returns 5-10 Chelsea St. Pierre, 5-10 Celeste Belcourt, and 5-11 Erin Broncho. The Stars will also be bolstered by Box Elder transfer Shaneen Raining Bird, who was one of the Bears' top players last season.
"There are definitely some high expectations for this team," Lamere said. "I don't want to sound cocky, but we expect to finish in first. It's good to set high goals, but these girls are willing to work for them. There are going to be teams gunning for us."
After the perceived top three teams, the remaining four teams are still plenty capable of moving into that upper half of the conference.
That group is led by the Turner Tornadoes.
Yes, the Tornadoes are a legitimate contenders this season led by four returning starters from last year and the return of former head coach Brenda Mohar.
Turner sports one of the bigger teams in 9C led by 5-10 Ashley Van Voast and 5-10 Cheryl Cowan. The Tornadoes also return guards Celeste Hedegaard and Kelsey Klindworth.
"We have lot of experience, we're big and tall and we have four returning starters," said Mohar, who returns to the varsity after spending the last seven years coaching the junior high team. "We want to play inside-outside and get the ball into the post first, but we are going to run if we get the opportunity."
With 10 girls out for the squad and an unusual amount of depth, the Tornadoes have big hopes for this season.
"Of course we have high expectations," Mohar said. "We want to be one of the top teams in the district. The girls feel like we should be one of the top teams and should be playing on Saturday night at districts."
Despite losing the last year's leading scorer and probably the best player in the league in Cady Arifin, the KG KouGars still have the same hopes as the Tornadoes
Arifin did everything for the KouGars but sell admission at the door last season. If there was a big shot needed, she took it. If there was tough player to guard, she drew the duty. There is going to be an adjustment to be made by head coach Jen Wendland's KouGars.
"The whole dynamic of our team has changed," Wendland said. "Last year we had Cady and our other two seniors do everything. This year is a whole different look for us."
That look will be more of a low-post game led by 5-10 freshman Tasha Dyrland and 5-10 junior Jodi Norman.
"We're going back to basics and trying to get our post game going," Wendland said. "We're trying to get our guards to look inside. It's the same offense with just a different focus."
Wendland is also looking for senior guard Whitney Hanson to knock down three-pointers, while junior Britta Umbach and sophomore Kate Vosen to handle the ball handling duties
The expectations aren't quite as high in Box Elder, where the Bears are looking to improve on a 1-17 record. Getting more than one win shouldn't be a problem for Shiloh Schwab-Hannum's squad.
The Bears return solid players in Rebecca and Gerri Eagleman and Tasha and Ashley Parisian
"The girls want don't want to go through that again," Schwab-Hannum said. "With all the experience we return from last year, we should be better than last year."
Where that puts the Bears in the conference race remains to be seen.
"The conference is a little more even than it has been the past," Schwab-Hannum said. "I think we will be right in the middle of things. I certainly don't think we'll finish last, but I think we can be right around .500."
For the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds, they know that their chances for success in the 9C will take a major hit after this season with the graduation of 6-2 Colette Hawley
Hawley can be the most dominant player in the 9C, but the key is to keep her on the floor and out of foul trouble.
So what we have learned about the 9C? That any team can beat any team on any given night And predictions are just guesses. So what can 9C fans expect?
If there is one thing to expect from the 9C conference race, it is the unexpected.