By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
When the Central A girls divisional basketball tournament gets under way tonight in Belgrade, it will feature a little different look and format then the one that was played a year ago in Havre. However, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Due to the realignment of Class A last spring this year's Central A tourney will feature only six teams and will run in conjunction with the Central A boys tournament. Even though the tourney might be smaller in the number of teams, it will still have the same old story because, as usual, every team will be chasing the Lewistown Eagles.
The aforementioned teams includes the Havre High girls basketball team. The Ponies have had a rollercoaster season under first-year head coach Jason Wirt.
They finished the regular season with an 8-10 overall record, which was good enough for fourth place in the conference standings. Because of tiebreakers, however, the Ponies will be the No. 6 seed in the tournament as they prepare to open the tournament tonight at 8 p.m. against No. 3 seed Butte Central (9-9). Belgrade (8-10) will play Livingston (7-11) in the first game of the night session.
While the Ponies may be the sixth seed in the tournament, that certainly doesn't mean they don't have a legitimate chance of reaching Saturday night's championship game. This year's field is very even, according to Wirt, and he is hoping that his team understands that.
"I told the girls that it may say the No. 6 seed behind our name, but we are the fourth-place team in our league," Wirt said. "I think things still worked out well for us. We are on the opposite side of the No. 1 team in the state in Lewistown, and we have a chance to play the only team we haven't beaten right away. So we are in a really good position this weekend. We can focus on what we need to do instead of what someone else is doing."
Indeed, if the Ponies should knock off the pesky Maroons tonight, they would face Browning (16-2) in the semifinals on Thursday afternoon. Havre was one of only two teams to beat the Indians the entire season.
Lewistown (15-3) will play the winner of the Belgrade/Livingston game in the other semifinal.
While the tournament does feature two of the top team's in Class A girls basketball, Wirt said that that does not mean anything is a given this weekend in Belgrade.
"Lewistown is obviously the favorite and they are probably a lock to go to state, because I just don't see them losing twice," Wirt said. "But I really think anything could happen after that. I think that we are in good shape and Belgrade is probably playing as well as anybody right now, so things are certainly up for grabs."
While looking ahead is part of the tournament atmosphere, first things are certainly first for Havre. The Ponies have to get by one of the two conference foes that swept them this season - Butte Central.
In both meetings with the Maroons, the Ponies got off to horrendous starts and that hampered them down the stretch. In Havre, the Ponies came all the way back to tie the game, only to lose in the final minutes. In Butte, the Maroons also had to hold off a second-half Blue Pony charge. If things are going to be different tonight, Havre will have to play better at the outset.
"That is the big thing," Wirt said. "We just have to get off to a good start so we are not playing uphill the entire game. We got down by 23 points the second time we played them and that just can't happen again.
"We need to play well early," he added. "Because I truly believe we match up the best with Butte Central, but we don't play well when we get so far behind. We just need to be ready to play right away."
Other than starting slowly, Havre will also have to contend with the Maroons' two star players. Jordan Kambich and Jodi Hogart have been a thorn in the Ponies side in both meetings this season and Wirt said that stopping them will be critical to Havre's success.
"We have been a pretty solid defensive team all season," Wirt said. "But we have let those two go off on us. We are going to have to do a better job guarding both of them or it could be the same thing all over again.
"I think that if we play solid defense and we get off to a better start we should be in really good shape in this game," he added. "I like having this opportunity to play Butte Central again, just like Belgrade has lost to Livingston twice, so I am sure they are excited about having another shot to play them."
If Havre is to get back to the state tournament for the first time in several years, they will also have to get solid output in several areas. The Ponies are getting 11 points and 11 rebounds from junior Steph Flatau. Junior Alexa Lipp has been one of the steadiest Ponies the last several weeks as she has upped her scoring average to almost nine points per game.
Senior point guard Amy McLain is still leading the Central A in assists and is averaging seven points per game, as is senior post player Whitney Barnekoff. The Ponies will also need the help of sharpshooting senior guard Justine Erhard, as well as the defense and rebounding from senior Becca Hilliard this weekend. Wirt has also added three more players to the divisional roster. Sophomore Erika Briese will make the trip, as will freshman Katie Mariani and Steph Stremcha.
The tournament will alter time slots each day with the boys playing this afternoon and the girls tonight. Thursday will be semifinal day with the girls in the morning and the boys at night. Friday will feature a full day of loser-out action and Saturday will feature the consolation games in the afternoon and the two championships Saturday night, beginning with the girls game at 6:30.
Havre's opening round tilt with Butte Central is scheduled to tip off at 8 p.m. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM. The Central A divisional tournament will take place at the Belgrade Special Events Center in Belgrade