By Kim Staudinger
It's homecoming weekend and the Havre girls basketball team faces a tough task ahead.
Havre faces Lewistown tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Blue Pony Corral. Lewistown is ranked second in the most recent top-10 poll released by the Associated Press, just three points behind top ranked Dillon.
Although Lewistown and Havre have identical records at 3-1, with their lone losses coming to Dillon in the tip-off tournament, the intense rivalry between the two teams may provide the real fireworks this weekend.
"It's a fun relationship," Havre coach Dennis Murphy said. "You want to beat them, but when it's over, it's over. It's kind of like a big brother, little brother thing."
"It's always a lot of fun," Lewistown coach Ron Miller said. "Coach Murphy and I have coached in this league against each other for 12 years now. You know it will always be a battle up there. We have had some great battles over the years."
Murphy said the games with Lewistown are always intense, but notes the home-court advantage continues to be a factor between the two teams.
"If you look at the last 11 years we've been coaching against each other, our home court has been very friendly," Murphy said. "With our student body and the fan support from the community, it makes our gym a hard place to come to."
What makes the rivalry even more special is the relationship between Murphy and Miller.
Lewiston standout Katie Edwards, who transferred from Denton before last season, said, "It's neat to see how they coach against each other. They sit and talk to each other for at least an hour before the game, then after the game they talk again.
"I knew right away that it was a big rivalry. It is just a feeling you get when you walk in the gym. You get out on the court and it's a cutthroat thing, but after the game, we are all friends," she said.
With Lewistown and Havre used to battling it out for the top spots in the conference, both teams know the game is never over until the final buzzer sounds.
"With two pretty good traditionally successful programs playing each other, the kids will come out and play hard," Murphy said. "You know if you can compete against a Lewistown, or if they can compete against a Havre, you will be OK in the conference."
"I'm a little nervous," Edwards said. "Havre is always so well coached and always competitive. They get the job done and do the little things right. It's a hard place to play in."
Even though the game will be a dogfight until the end, the Ponies see a few advantages it may have against the Eagles. The Ponies are a big team, while the Eagles are fairly short. The tallest player for Lewistown is sophomore Leslie Richter at 5-foot-10. Edwards, Dani Buehler and Shaylynn Conroy all stand at 5-foot-9.
But perhaps more importantly, Lewistown has been slumping. The Eagles are shooting 38 percent from the field so far this season.
Miller says with his team being so short, teams that have size have a distinct rebounding advantage, but paramount to him is the Eagle's lack of scoring.
"We are struggling offensively right now," he said. "We have good shooters, but they are struggling."
Murphy knows Lewistown is capable of putting a lot of points on the board because they shoot the three well, but doesn't want to see the Eagles slump end tonight.
"It's a scary thing if they are in a shooting slump because you know they are going to break out of it sometime," he said. "I just hope it is not against us."
Another fear Murphy has is facing Edwards when she breaks out of her recent offensive woes.
"She is one of the best shooters I have seen play in girls basketball," he said. "She is the type of player that once she gets going, she will put up some points. She is a big player in big games."
Edwards, who averaged nearly 30 points per game last season, is averaging only 23 this year and is shooting 27 percent from three point range, significantly down from last year.
Edwards said she has to give credit to the teams she has played this year for defending her so well, but added she is just going through a slump and hopes to break out soon.
"Katie has been defended well this year by all the teams we have played," Miller said. "I know he'll (Murphy) have something that will work out (as to who will guard her)."
Edwards also recently surpassed the 2,000 career point total, becoming only the tenth girls basketball player in Montana to accomplish that feat. Edwards, who currently has 2,035 points, was unaware of the milestone until a reporter asked her about it.
The Ponies will also have to look for sophomore Conroy to have a good game this weekend. Conroy is the Eagles' second leading scorer right now, averaging 15.8 points per game.
"Their perimeter is as solid as anyone's in the conference right now," Murphy said. "Conroy is playing very well, and so is Dani Buehler, so we can't just focus on Edwards."
Murphy said Lewistown, which plays an aggressive man-to-man defense, could take away the size advantage the Ponies have and that the difference in the game will be who plays better on defense.
"Whoever executes the defensive scheme the best will come up the winner in the game," he said.
Both coaches expect mismatches to occur during the game due to the height differences and add that one team's weakness is the other's strength, providing opportunites for both teams to score a lot.
"We expect them to shoot 30 three-point shots in a game, which means we have to put that much more pressure on defending the three," Murphy said.
Another advantage Murphy feels his team has against Lewistown is being able to bring seniors off the bench. Murphy said some of his younger players have also began to step it up, which he feels is the key to his team having season-long success.
Homecoming weekend will not get any easier for the Ponies as they will face Great Falls High School on Saturday to wrap-up the weekend.
"Homecoming helps us this weekend because we will have bigger crowds," Murphy said. "The excitement of more people in the gym creates a tournament-like atmosphere, and you know the Ponies always play well come tournament time."