By George Ferguson
With January nearly over, the stretch run in Montana boys high school basketball is drawing closer. That means that the contenders will start to separate themselves from the pretenders.
This weekend at the Havre High gymnasium the No. 2-ranked Havre High boys basketball team will try to separate itself just a little further from the pack in the Central A standings when it hosts Belgrade and Livingston.
The Ponies (9-1, 5-0) will look to leave any doubt about capturing their third straight Central A regular season title when they play host to the 7-2 Panthers tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Havre defeated the Belgrade by 19 points way back in December at the Belgrade Special Events Cente. Since then, the Ponies have only lost one game in that time. Havre comes into tonight's matchup on a roll offensively, having scored 100 points against Malta Saturday night. But it isn't just the startes, Havre is getting production from its entire team.
Senior Ty Hedalen is leading the team in scoring and rebounding. Hedalen is averaging 20 points and seven rebounds per game. Junior Jared Weigal is giving the Ponies 14 points per contest, while senior Gary Wagner is chipping in with nine points per outing.
Senior point guard Marc Mariani is contributing nine points, seven assists and three steals per game. The Ponies are also getting seven points and four rebounds a game from junior Mike Barton off the bench.
"We're playing pretty good basketball right now," said HHS head coach John Barnhorst. "I think a big key has been the play from our bench. Those guys are gaining a lot of confidence and that is making us a much deeper team, which will help us tremendously down the road."
Of course Havre was playing well right from the start of the season when they trounced the Panthers by 19 points in its second game of the year.
But Belgrade has kept pace with the Ponies since. The Panthers sit just one game behind Havre in the Central A standings. Their only other conference loss came at the hands of Class AA Bozeman.
"I think we surprised Belgrade with our press the first time we played them," Barnhorst said. "They struggled with that a little, and we were able to get a big lead.
"They are a very solid team with some tough big kids and some outstanding guards," he added. "I am expecting a much closer game from them this time around."
Indeed, the Panthers boast two 6-5 forwards in Rex Martin (13 ppg) and Brad Westmoreland (10 ppg). Belgrade also gets 16 points per game from guard Rick Brown. Still, it's the Panthers' ability to play inside and out that has Barnhorst concerned about tonight's meeting.
"Belgrade does a good job of rebounding and keeping people off of the boards, so controlling paint will be a big key for us," Barnhorst said. "We also have to play good perimeter defense and be aware of their shooters, because they do shoot it well from the outside."
Of course, a win over the Panthers would almost assure the Ponies of at least a share of the Central A title. Havre would own several tiebreakers with two wins over Belgrade. But Barnhorst won't look any further than this weekend's games with Belgrade and Livingston.
The Runnin' Rangers will be in Browning on Friday night before coming to Havre for a Saturday afternoon showdown with the Ponies.
Livingston is winless so far this season and is coming into this weekend off of a tough loss to Class B Big Timber. Theys were stung by the Ponies on their home floor back in December by 30 points. While Livingston has continued to struggle throughout the season, Barnhorst said that his team won't take them lightly on Saturday.
"Even though we beat them by a lot the first time we played them, I walked away from that game thinking they were a pretty solid team," Barnhorst said. "They have some good players so I am not sure why they are struggling. But having played them once, the kids know that they are more than capable of coming in here and doing good things against us. So we will be ready to play them on Saturday."
Tonight's game between Havre and Belgrade will tip off at 7:30 p.m. as a part of the boys and girls doubleheader. Saturday's game between Havre and Livingston will tip off at 3 p.m. with the girls game to follow. All of the action will take place at the HHS gymnasium.