By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
And you thought Santa Claus' schedule before Christmas was tough. Even St. Nick would have a tough time handling the schedule that the Havre High girls basketball team must endure before its much awaited holiday break.
Just four days removed from the final game of a three-game road trip that ended with a loss in Livingston, the Ponies are back at the Havre High gymnasium to take on the vaunted Great Falls High Bison tonight at 7:30.
The tilt with GFH is the first of two extremely difficult home games for the Ponies this weekend. On Saturday night, Havre will host Central A rival Browning.
The Ponies are 2-1 this season after a very difficult opening weekend that saw them get past a very game Chinook squad last Thursday. Havre then traveled to Belgrade and picked up its first Central A conference win for new head coach Jason Wirt before finally hitting a wall in Livingston on Saturday.
"I was very pleased with our first two games last week," Wirt said. "I think on Saturday we were physically and mentally fatigued and things just didn't go our way.
"I am very happy with where we are at right now," he added. "We are playing good, solid basketball."
Even though the Ponies have played three quality opponents to open the season, tonight's game with the Bison will certainly be a step up in competition. GFH (2-0) is expected to contend for a Class AA state championship this season. The Bison are loaded with talented and tall offensive players.
The Bison also present a challenge for Havre's offense because they are one of the few teams in Montana that play a match-up zone for an entire game.
"Great Falls High is a very good team and they are obviously very big," Wirt said. "Defensively, we are going to have to play very well and we will need to limit their possessions and do a good job keeping them off of the glass.
"They are also the only team that we will see that plays a match-up zone," Wirt added. "So we are going to have to make sure we get to the open spots and create problems for them. We will have to be very sound offensively."
The Bison have perhaps two of the top 10 players in Class AA in seniors Loren Beck and Sarah Stubbs. Beck torched the Ponies in a blowout win in Havre last season. Standing close to 5-10, Beck is one of the taller guards in the state with the ability to score off the dribble or knock down the 3-point shot. She recently signed to play basketball for the University of Montana.
Stubbs is the catalyst for the Bison from her point guard position. Besides being a very dangerous outside shooter, she has the skills to penetrate into the lane and create scoring opportunities for her teammates.
Despite all of the outstanding players on GFH's roster, Havre did shock the Bison last season in Great Falls.
"This is a chance for us to play better competition," Wirt said. "Great Falls is probably better than any team we'll see in Class A this season, so it will be a very tough game for us."
If hosting Great Falls High wasn't a big enough challenge for the Ponies, they will have to turn around and welcome longtime rival Browning back to the Havre High gymnasium on Saturday night.
It will be the first meeting between the two schools since last year's Central A divisional tournament when they waged a classic dual in the consolation game, which Browning won in the final minutes.
It will also be the first time in three years that Browning head coach Leo Kennerly comes to Havre without graduated star Tamara Guardipee, who is redshirting for the Lady Griz. But the Indians still return a lot of firepower and Wirt knows that Saturday's game will be another huge test for his ball club.
"It is going to be a very good game," Wirt said of the matchup with the Indians. "Judging from the stats from their first two games, it looks like they aren't playing the same style of basketball that they normally do. They haven't been shooting as many threes as they usually do.
"But we know they are going to bring a very good team and they have some very talented players," he added. "They will press us and try to force us to play a little faster than we want to. So we are going to have to make good decisions with the basketball and really try to control the tempo of the game."
Despite the loss of Guardipee, the Indians possess perhaps the top offensive player in the Central A in 6-0 standout Jenna Skunkcap. Skunkcap averaged nearly 15 points per game last season and that number seemed to increase whenever she played against Havre.
Browning also will rely heavily on 5-11 Theresa Kennerly for offensive production.
The Ponies will try to counter those two with a continued balanced scoring attack. Havre has gotten double-digit performances from Steph Flatau, Amy McLain, Whitney Barnekoff, Justine Erhard and Alexa Lipp this season.
Even though it is still December, it is never too early to start worrying about the conference standings, and Saturday's matchup could have serious implications for both teams later in the season.
"This is a big one," Wirt said. "Out of the three games we have left before Christmas, this is the one we really need to win. We have really focused on Browning this week in practice and we are very prepared for this game."
Tonight's matchup with GFH is slated to tip off at 7:30, as is Saturday's game against Browning. All of the action will take place at the Havre High gymnasium.