By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
It seems like an eternity since the Havre High boys basketball team has played a game. It was way back on Dec. 18 when the Ponies closed out the 2004 portion of their schedule with a loss at Great Falls High.
Tonight the Ponies make their 2005 debut in the friendly confines of the HHS gymnasium when they host the CMR Rustlers at 7:30.
Havre will also return to Central A conference play when they travel to Butte on Saturday afternoon to take on the Butte Central Maroons.
The Ponies (4-1) went into Christmas break with a disappointing loss to the Bison. In that game, Havre was somewhat fatigued and struggled offensively in what is the only blemish on its record at this point.
HHS first-year head coach John Barnhorst immediately knew after the Great Falls' game that his team was capable of playing much better basketball, but he also knew that it was in desperate need of the upcoming holiday break.
Now, as his team prepares to face its second straight Class AA opponent, he believes his players have benefited from the last two weeks of practice, and are ready for the challenge the Rustlers will present tonight.
"I think the break has been really good for us," Barnhorst said. "We have gotten healthy again and our football guys finally got a chance to take a break, because they definitely needed it.
"But we have also had a very productive break," he added. "Practices have been really good the last two weeks and I think we are ready to start playing again."
When CMR comes calling tonight, the Rustlers will still wear the label of defending Class AA state champions. It is a title that CMR has claimed in four of the past five seasons. The Rustlers also have the distinction of owning a multiple-year winning streak over the Ponies, including two fairly lopsided victories last season.
What CMR won't have is almost 90 percent of its scoring from last year's team. The Rustlers (2-2) have had to deal with replacing a multitude of talent from last season, including the likes of graduated stars Ryan Bagley, Don DeGooyer, Greg Gysberg, Travis Hartman, Lonnie Fulp, Tony Forester and J.R. Buffington.
Austin Mullins and Tanner Lagge are the only returning Rustlers who saw extensive playing time last season. Newcomers Klan Carter, Matt Schooner and Brad Goodman have played solid minutes this season for the Rustlers.
Perhaps the biggest loss, though, is the retirement of head coach Mike McLean. A former Chester coach, McLean shaped and molded the CMR hoops program into a perennial powerhouse. McLean has been replaced by assistant John Cislo.
Despite the rebuilding project at CMR, Barnhorst expects to see the same type of Rustler team that Havre has faced over the course of the last five years.
"CMR lost a lot of talent last season and their perimeter kids are all new this season," he said. "But they still play the same type of game that they always do.
"They are physical and they play really hard defense," he added. "Offensively, they will be deliberate and patient, and they won't settle for bad shots."
Indeed, the game will most likely come down to defense and rebounding. Havre has defended the Rustlers admirably the last two seasons, but CMR's defense has stifled the Ponies offensively. Barnhorst expects the Rustlers to get after his team defensively once again.
However, the glaring stat that Havre will have to change if it expects to end the losing streak against CMR will be in the rebounding column. CMR has hounded Havre on the boards for the last two seasons. Barnhorst admitted that his team will have to reverse that trend tonight of they are going to have a chance to win.
"We're in the same mindset that we were when we went to Great Falls High," Barnhorst said. "We have to be able to withstand CMR's physical style of play and we have to rebound the ball effectively on both ends of the floor. We think we finally match up with them a little better than in years past, but we have to win the battles in the paint if we are going to be successful against them."
Generally, Havre has also had trouble scoring points against CMR's tremendous defensive pressure. However, this season the Ponies have a lot more experience handling the basketball and have a very balanced offensive attack.
Senior Ty Hedalen is averaging 19 points per game and junior Jared Weigel is averaging around 14 points per outing. Senior Gary Wagner is also adding 10 points per game, while point guard Marc Mariani averages nine points per contest as well as eight assists per game. As a team, Havre is averaging 71 points per game and is shooting better than 51 percent from the field.
"If we do the things we know we need to do well, I think we'll be right there against CMR," Barnhorst said. "It should be a very entertaining game."
As if playing the vaunted Rustlers wasn't a daunting enough task, the Ponies will also have a tough road trip on Saturday when they visit Butte Central (4-1).
The Maroons have a young, but very talented team led by junior Shaugn McKeon, who is leading the Central A in scoring at 21.0 points per game. The Maroons also get 15 points per outing from Matt Pokorny and have a solid supporting cast led by the likes of Alex Murphy and Jake Stagnoli. Butte Central is also under the direction of first-year head coach, and former Maroon standout Brodie Kelly.
"Butte Central has a very good team and they seem to be playing really good basketball right now," Barnhorst said. "They are guard oriented and they shoot the ball really well. Our defense will have their hands full against them.
"We are going down to Butte with the mindset that this is a must-win for us," Barnhorst added. "If we can get a win down there, then we know we still get them at home later in the season and that will be to our advantage in the conference standings."
Tonight's game between Havre High and CMR will tip-off at 7:30 at the Havre High gymnasium. Saturday's game at Butte Central is scheduled to tip-off at 5 p.m.