By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
For the last 22 years, a fall weekend is filled with passes, presses and ponytails at the Havre Central gymnasium with the annual Havre Central Girls Basketball Tournament.
Better make that 23.
The longstanding fall tradition will continue again tonight as the tourney opens with a pair of games, starting at 5 p.m. when the Havre Middle School takes on Fairfield. The defending champion and host Central 49ers will take to the floor at 6:30 p.m. when they face Harlem.
The HMS Mustangs, coached by Dustin Kraske, are 17-4 this season. Havre draws the unenviable task of facing undefeated Fairfield in the first round.
"We only had the one team this year, so we've basically played a double schedule," Kraske said. "That's a lot of games. There's not too many junior high teams that get to play 30 games, which is where we'll be at by the end of the season."
The middle school is also playing in its own tournament this weekend. The times will not conflict, but the Mustangs could end up playing six games in three days.
"Hopefully, we have something left by Saturday," Kraske said.
One thing Kraske is certain of is his team's excitement to play in the Central tourney.
"Our girls get so excited, especially to play in the Central tournament," he said. "It's a first-class tournament. I've played in it and coached in it and it's a great thing to be a part of."
While Kraske had little information on his first-round opponent, Central coach Chris Daniel offered some insight.
"Fairfield is supposed to be very good," Daniel said. "They are undefeated and play in a good league. But the middle school has a pretty good team too. That should be a very good game."
Filling out the middle school team are: Sarah Blessum, Hope Hedges, Samantha Mack, Amber Cox, Kayla Gilbert, Emily Hilliard, Shayla Preeshl, Mariah Armstrong, Bethany Brooks, Lindsay Hand, Kadee Burrington, Kelsey Lodge and Kela Bergren.
Central comes into its own tourney on a bit of a roll. The Niners won the Our Lady of Lourdes Invitational tournament last weekend in Great Falls and are hoping to carry that momentum into this weekend.
"We struggled a little bit at the beginning of the season," said Daniel. "But the last few games, we've really been playing well."
Central's roster includes nine eighth-graders - Tabitha Beck, Karly Evans, Amanda Hedstrom, Josi Herron, Janelle Job, Kaylee Johnson, Natalie Kato, Ashlee Kinsella, Andrea Mack - along with three seventh-graders -Courtney Kinholt, Morgan McCann and Sarah Vigliotti - who have moved up for the tournament. The Niners' success this season has come from their balance and depth.
"It's been pretty much a team effort all season," Daniel said. "We've been getting different people to step up every game."
Central should have plenty of confidence coming into tonight's game, having defeated Harlem twice already this season. However, Daniel isn't about to let his team be too confident.
"It still depends on how we play," he said. "We've been talking all week about not to take anybody for granted. We can't overlook anyone we play."
Friday's games will start at 3 p.m. with Great Falls schools Holy Spirit and Our Lady of Lourdes squaring off. The last of the first-round games will start at 4:30 p.m. with Cascade meeting Chinook.
Along with Fairfield, both Havre teams are considered tournament favorites. Cascade played in last year's tournament championship, while the remaining four teams are capable of winning two games to get into the title game.
"It should be a pretty good tournament," Daniel said. "There should be some competitive games."
Admission for the tournament is $2 per session and $8 for an all-session pass.