Chris Peterson Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
After a six-year hiatus from the Class A girls state basketball tournament, the Havre Blue Ponies will make their triumphant return to the biggest state in Class A basketball today in Belgrade. However, the Ponies (16-5) will have their work cut out for them when they go head-to-head with tournament favorite and Southwest A Champion Anaconda (19-1) at 1 in the Belgrade Special Events Center. “Like you’ve heard a thousand times, if you want to be the best you have to beat the best,” HHS first-year head coach Dustin Kraske said. “They are one of the best teams in Class A, but so are we. Our kids are really fired up to play them and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to show people what we can do.” The Copperheads are a veteran team that returns all the key parts from a team that made it to the state semifinals last year in Miles City. And the most important piece of the puzzle is 6-0 All- State junior forward Ali Hurley. Hurley has been one of the most dominant post players in Class A this season with an average of 21 points and six rebounds a game. She also averaged six steals a game. Hurley can be nightmare to match up with in the post for defenders and she will cause problems for the Ponies front court of Lena Suek and Steph Stremcha, who are both listed at 5- 9. “It’s not like this is going to be our first rodeo,” Kraske said. “All year long we have been playing against teams that are bigger than we are. So it won’t be anything new. But Hurley is widely considered the best female college prospect in the state, and Anaconda also boasts All-State senior guard Cara Laslovich, who averages around nine points per game. Other key contributors for Anaconda are Sammie Barkell and Maddy Walker. “We are just going to have to play well defensively,” he explained. “We need to make sure we keep them in front of us and not allow them to penetrate to the basket. It’s also going to be important for us to keep them off the boards as best we can. While, Anaconda is going to rely heavily on the play of it’s front court, the Blue Ponies will hang their hat on pressure defense and an extremely talented backcourt. Katie Mariani provides HHS with it’s best option on the offensive end of the floor, as she led the team in scoring with at 13 points per game. Joining Mariani will be point guard Tricia Samson as well as Hope Hedges. Both Samson and Hedges average around eight points a game along with Sarah Blessum, who is a sharpshooter that gives the team an offensive spark off the bench.
“I don’t think that our kids will hesitate at all to shoot the basketball,” Kraske said. “Maybe we have been hesitant to shoot the ball a little lately, but I don’t see that being the case this weekend. I think it’s going to be interesting because it will be the first time in a while that going into the game the pressure to win is not on us. It’s on them. “They are the team that is supposed to have success at the state tournament,” he added. “And I guess that maybe we aren’t, so some of that pressure will be off of us.” With that mindset, the Ponies and Kraske see no reason why they can’t spring the upset today. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t go in there and beat them,” he said. “I mean, what more could you want out of a team than to play as hard as they can for every minute of the game. That is what our team does every single night. I think that is all you can ask for out of a basketball team.” If the Ponies can upset the highlytouted Copperheads, then they will move onto the semifinals where they will meet the winner of Miles City and Columbia Falls, which will take place today at 2:30. Eastern A champion Miles City (18-2) was the runner-up at the state tournament a year ago and will be looking to make their second straight appearance in the title game. The Cowgirls are led by a slew of talented players, including Torri Cahill, Charli Mader and Marni Magnuson. Columbia Falls (15-7) earned a trip to the state tournament by way of a runnerup finish in the Northwest A divisional. On the opposite side of the bracket, Central A champion Livingston (15-6) will meet up with Southwest A runner-up Dillon in the first round at 7. The game will feature two teams that are making an appearance in the state tournament for the second straight season. The contest may depend on the play of each teams talented post player, as Hayley Pettit, a 6-2 All-State forward for Dillon will do battle with 6-1 forward Sara Meyer of Livingston. While Dillon will have the advantage in the frontcourt, the Rangers should have a slight advantage in guard play with the likes of Brianna Ackerman and Sage Indendi. The final opening round game will pit Northwest A champion Bigfork (18-2) against Eastern A runner-up Glendive (14-9). The nightcap will kick off at 8:30. The winners of the opening round games will square off in the semifinals, which will take place at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p. m Friday night. The consolation game will be on Saturday night at 7 p.m. with the state championship game following at 8:30 p.m.