By Kim Staudinger
The Harlem Wildcats, picked by many to be one of the top teams in Class B, have started their season with three wins and are hoping to make it four in a row tonight when they face the Havre Blue Ponies in a non-conference matchup in Harlem.
The Wildcats placed third at state last year and have the core of their team returning, which makes them a dangerous opponent for any team. Of the 11 players seeing action on the varsity team this year, nine played on the team last year. Chris Cole and Kevin Bigby are perhaps the most notable returners. Cole and Bigby were named to the District 2B first team all conference team, received all-state honors for Class B, and were named to the all tournament team at the state Class B tournament.
Still, Harlem head coach Cal Bigby said his team does not revolve around just Cole and Bigby.
"We don't really rely on one or two guys. We are more of a team," he said. "We've got other guys who can score also. On any given night we have guys who can score in double figures."
Tonight's matchup between Havre and Harlem marks the first time the two teams have met in a varsity game in school history. Havre has bounced between playing Sidney, Fort Benton and now Harlem since dropping Cut Bank off the schedule in 1998.
But don't let Havre being a Class A opponent taking on a Class B opponent fool you. Both coaches expect a very tough competitive game that will help them improve for games against other opponents later in the season. Bigby noted while his team plays Glasgow, Malta and Wolf Point, Havre also has a tough schedule in teams like CMR and Browning, as well as Glasgow and Malta, among others.
"We like the competition," Bigby said. "With Havre being in Class A, we expect it to be a tough game. Havre's a quality team, a quality opponent. Every time we go out we have a tough game, it doesn't matter if the team is from Class A or B or whatever."
Despite knowing his team is facing a possible state champion tonight, Havre coach Mark West said his team had a strong week of practice and is ready to face the Wildcats.
Coach West said he had a chance to watch Harlem play Glasgow, Havre's opponent for Saturday night, and feels he has an idea as to Harlem's style of play.
"Harlem wants to control the tempo of the game, a very fast tempo," he said. "They play very hard and look to the fast break. Between the fast break and the early offense is where they score most of their points."
West said he hopes his team can break the press, work their offense and slow the tempo of the game down enough to get into a half-court style of play. West said if his team doesn't turn the ball over very often and is able to stay mainly at a half-court style, the Ponies should be successful.
But Bigby said his team can play the slower style of game and won't hesitate to do it.
"We can slow the ball down and move it around, too," he said. "If they want to slow it down, we'll slow it down. If they want to speed it up, we can do that, too. We like to establish our inside game." Bigby also added when his team played Browning last year they played a fast-paced type of game in the first meeting, running up and down the floor a lot and scoring a lot of points, but the second time they slowed the game down and were just as successful.
According to West, about the only weakness he sees in Harlem is that they sometimes have troubles shooting the ball from the outside, which will put pressure on his forwards to not get in foul trouble if the Wildcats drive and take the ball to the basket.
While West was able to watch Harlem play before tonight's game, Bigby said he has not been able to see Havre play and doesn't know that much about their style of play. He said the only things he knows is what he has "heard through the grapevine."
"We don't really know that much about Havre," Bigby said. "We are just going to go out and play like we are playing anybody else."
After Havre's game tonight against Harlem, the Glasgow Scotties will travel to town to face the Ponies on Saturday.
West said Glasgow is very similar to Harlem in their style of play and has four players who are 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5.
"Both teams we play this weekend are very similar. They (Glasgow) look to the fast break, too," he said. "They play real hard, so hopefully we can handle the pressure and play good defense ourselves this weekend. Against both teams we are going to have to handle the basketball well, hustle and get back on defense."
While the Scotties are bigger than the Ponies, West said they don't really go inside much and are very quick and athletic. West said his team did prepare some for the opponents they would face this weekend, but they are still trying to get better. He hopes that with every weekend his team will play better together and is able to take away some valuable lessons whether they win or lose.
Both games are slated to begin at 7:30 p.m. tonight's game will be at the Harlem High School gym and Saturday's game will be at the Havre High gym.