By Kim Staudinger
Last season the Havre High School boys basketball team was very young, only having a couple returners with any experience. This year's team, however, returns six players who saw varsity game time and who now have a year of experience.
Six seniors will lead the way for the Ponies, four who saw extended playing time on the varsity squad last season Danny Wirtzberger, Kevin Harada, Mike Frey and Titus Pedraza. Rounding out the seniors are Kyle Sheppard and Doug Ireland. Sophomore Cory Brothers, who started as a freshman last year, is another of the top returners.
A problem the Ponies will have this year is the difficulty of their schedule. The Ponies play defending state AA champion C.M. Russell, always tough AA opponent Great Falls High, Browning, who has strong returners as well as transfer Mike Chavez from Heart Butte, Harlem, one of the top teams in Class B, Malta and Lewistown. Havre also has to contend with Chinook and Glasgow, who will also be tough opponents.
"If we could play in our conference, things would be different," head coach Mark West said.
But because of Havre's location, the Ponies are forced to play teams from a regionalized schedule, which West hopes will help come tournament time.
"The regionalized schedule we have is definitely going to test all our abilities," he said. "We are really trying to gear ourselves to the Central A tourney at the end of the year. I look to the tournament to pull off a few upsets."
While the regionalized schedule may help Havre come tournament time, the Ponies have to understand their record may not be a good indicator of the quality team they are.
"If we keep our heads up and continue to work hard, we'll be successful," West said. "I expect them to do a lot of things. We need to be patient enough to take good shots and play together. We are a good passing team and can shoot the ball well. If we do the things we do well, we have a chance."
The Ponies first chance comes this weekend at the annual Central A Tip-Off Tournament. Ten teams will visit Havre this weekend, including all the Central A teams and Ronan and Columbia Falls. This is the second year 10 teams have come to the opening tournament.
According to Havre Athletic Director Dennis Murphy, Belgrade and Livingston played in a four-team tournament with Polson and Ronan to open the season in year's past. But Belgrade and Livingston wanted in to the Central A tournament, so Ronan and Polson decided to join the tournament as well. Polson dropped out of the tournament this year and Columbia Falls joined in.
Murphy also said if 10 teams were not at this tournament with the two teams from the south, one team would have to play a Central A opponent three times instead of only two.
Along with Belgrade, Livingston, Ronan and Columbia Falls, Dillon, Anaconda, Lewistown, Browning and Butte Central will compete.
The tournament opens Friday at 2 p.m. with Fergus taking on Butte Central, followed by Browning and Belgrade at 3:30, Columbia Falls and Livingston at 5:15, Ronan and Anaconda at 6:45 and Havre and Dillon at 8:30. Saturday's schedule begins at 10:30 a.m. with Belgrade and Columbia Falls, Livingston and Ronan follow at noon, Dillon and Fergus at 1:45 p.m., Anaconda and Browning at 3:15 and Butte Central and Havre at 4:45.
The much anticipated Browning team faces Belgrade Friday, a matchup between two of the top teams in the conference.
"It should be the best game of the tournament for talent and just basketball," West said, noting that Browning is a team comparable to CMR. "Browning is obviously the best team in the conference with MVP Mike Chavez and a nice nucleus of kids back. Knowing (Leo) Bullchild and Chavez is there is enough. It makes them very good."
After Belgrade and Browning, West anticipates Dillon and Lewistown to be the next top teams and "then everyone else will be fighting it out," he said.
Havre opens its tournament Friday at 8:30 against Dillon. West said Dillon is a solid team with senior Matt Allen and sophomore Torrey Thomas. West said Allen is one of Dillon's better players and that Thomas played a lot of varsity as a freshman, so he should also be a tough player.
"They are fast. They press a lot and shoot the ball well," West said about Dillon. "They are a very tough opponent. It will be a good game to test where we're at. It's a good one for us to start out with."
Havre's second game is Saturday against Butte Central, which will also be a challenge for the Ponies.
"Traditionally Butte plays very hard," West said. "They are very physical. It's something we are going to have to answer to. It would be nice to get a split this weekend."
Cost for the tournament is $5 per day for adults, $4 for students and $3 for children.
The following is the schedule for the tip-off tournament:
2:00 p.m. Fergus vs. Butte Central
3:30 p.m. Browning vs. Belgrade
5:15 p.m. Columbia Falls vs. Park
6:45 p.m. Ronan vs. Anaconda
8:30 p.m. Havre vs. Dillon
10:30 a.m. Belgrade vs. Columbia Falls
12:00 noon Park vs. Ronan
1:45 p.m. Dillon vs. Fergus
3:15 p.m. Anaconda vs. Browning
4:45 p.m. Butte Central vs. Havre