By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ email@example.com
No one on the Havre High boys basketball team has been here before. If Blue Pony head coach Mark West has anything to be concerned about heading into Thursday's Class A state tournament in Belgrade, it's his team's complete and total lack of state tournament experience.
It has been five years since a Havre High basketball team has qualified for a state tournament, but the 2004 Blue Ponies not only qualified for the state tournament, they did it in dominant fashion by winning the Central A divisional tournament going away two weeks ago in Butte.
Even without a single player on the roster having played in a state tourney, Havre is not only one of Class A's hottest teams coming into this week, they are a prohibitive favorite to compete for a state championship.
"There is no question that we played great basketball at the divisional tournament," West said. "Everything clicked for us in all phases of the game, and everybody on our team played well. Hopefully that will continue this weekend."
One thing that is very different from the last time a Pony team participated in state is the week long break between the divisional and state tournament. West can only hope that his team's intensity and momentum has not disappeared in a week of practice.
"Even though our practices have been really good, it will be interesting to see how the week off affects us when we start playing," West said. "Our lack of experience and our mentality is obviously a big concern. No one on this team has played in a state tournament and I am not sure how that will affect our team. Hopefully it won't."
While West isn't sure how his team will respond to the pressures of playing in a state tournament, and being expected to win there, Havre High senior Cory Brothers has been waiting for this moment his entire life and believes his teammates are ready for the challenge.
"This is something that we have been looking forward to for a long time," Brothers said. "We have worked hard this year and we are coming together at the right time. I think we have a great chance to do really well at state. I am really excited about playing in a state tournament."
It won't take long to find out how the Ponies respond to life in the state tournament. Havre will play the first game of the tournament on Thursday afternoon and its opening round opponent is very familiar with state tournament play.
Havre (15-6) will open up the tourney with defending state champion Columbia Falls at 1 p.m.
The Wildcats are 12-9 on the season and finished second at last weekend's Western A divisional tournament in Ronan. While West admits that Columbia Falls isn't the same team that captured the state championship a year ago, they are still dangerous and will be a very tough first-round opponent.
"Columbia Falls is a very sound basketball team fundamentally," West said. "I like to think we match up with them physically, but they are a team that will force you to beat them because they won't beat themselves.
"They don't make mistakes and they don't turn the ball over," West added. "The big key for us will be to continue to be patient on offense and look for very high-percentage shots. If we can do that and rebound the ball, we should be in a good shape."
Havre's keys to success were the same factors that led them to a divisional title. The Ponies dominated all three of their opponents defensively and shot better than 50 percent from the field for the tournament. They also outrebounded their divisional opponents in two of three contests. Another big statistic was that Havre made more free throws than its opponents even attempted in the three games combined. Havre also got great individual performances from Brothers, junior point guard Marc Mariani and junior Tyler Hedalen as well as great three-point shooting from senior Trent Normandy.
"Our game plan is very similar to what we wanted to do at the divisional tournament," West said. "If we can control the boards and defend well, I think we will be tough to beat. But it will all come down to execution."
Of course Havre isn't the only good basketball team in the tournament. The Ponies are on the same side of the bracket as two of the top four teams in the state. In the second game on Thursday, Libby (20-2) will take on Eastern A champion Sidney (17-3).
The Loggers were ranked No. 1 for most of the season but were upset in the semifinals of the Western A divisional tournament. Libby possesses one of the biggest and most athletic teams in the field. Libby's frontline is all 6-5 or taller and its guards go 6-0 and 6-2, meaning their entire starting five is stands at least six-feet tall.
Meanwhile, Sidney is a much smaller but equally athletic team. Sidney also has a common opponent with the Ponies in Glasgow. Like Havre, Sidney lost to Glasgow on the Scotties' home floor earlier this season.
"I think that Libby has to be one of the favorites this weekend because they are a very talented and athletic team," West said. "But they have a real dogfight on their hands in the first round because Sidney has quietly been one of the best teams in Class A all season.
In the night session of the first round, Dillon (14-8) will match up with Stevensville (16-5), while Belgrade (16-5) will take on Glendive (11-10). Havre crushed both Dillon and Belgrade on back-to-back nights on its way to the Central A title. But West believes that both teams could be in position for a trophy.
Stevensville, on the other hand, is the wild card in the whole tournament. The Yellowjackets enter Thursday's play as the Western A champion. The Yellowjackets, like Libby, are one of the taller teams in the field and are very post-oriented. They will present a very stern test for the talented Beavers in the first round.
"Dillon is a better basketball team than a lot of people give them credit for," West said. "They have a great one-two combo in Torrey Thomas and Kevin Dyk. But I know Stevensville is a big team so that is another great first-round game.
"I also think that Belgrade is very capable of making it to Saturday night," West added. "They are playing at home and that is a big edge. The other schools are going to find out that they have a very good basketball team led by a great player in Caleb Salisbury."
With the parity that West described, it is almost impossible to predict who might be crowned state champion on Saturday night. But he knows one thing for certain, the team that walks off the floor a champion will have to play at a very high level for three straight days.
"I think we would all agree that this tournament is wide open," West said. "There really isn't a heavy favorite or a team that is way above everyone else. That is why our kids are confident that we have a good shot this weekend."
Said Brothers: "I feel really good about our chances. We are playing great basketball and we have a lot of confidence as a team. If we can play like we did at divisionals, it will be tough for anyone to beat us."
Thursday's first round game between Havre and Columbia Falls will tip off at 1 p.m. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM. All of the action will take place this weekend at the Belgrade Special Events Center in Belgrade.