Even after claiming back-to-back regular season conference titles, as well as back-to-back Central A tournament titles, the table is set for the Havre High girls basketball program to have one of its best overall seasons in recent history.
The last time the Blue Ponies won the Class A state title was during the 1997 season, with a 62-43 win over Dillon. But the Ponies made several appearances in the state chipper that decade, and are looking to get back to that level again this year. The Ponies have been no slouch in recent seasons either, as they have made it to the state tournament six out of the last seven years under veteran head coach Dustin Kraske. Two years ago the Ponies finished with 11 wins and last year the Ponies racked up 14 wins and capped off their state run in the semifinals.
Last year’s success came with just one senior athlete, post player Neya Bischoff. But with Bischoff the lone graduate, a lot of attention is already being directed to this potent Pony team.
“We have great kids returning and have good senior leadership,” Kraske said. “We are real pleased with where things are at right now, as happy as we can be. But the kids are practicing hard and playing well. It has been a good process so far. I would like to think that what we have been doing over the years has been OK, we are pleased with it, but this is my eighth year, and this should be comparable to maybe the oldest team that we have had. It is nice having the five seniors, we are older than we have been, but it will be fun to watch all of these kids play together.”
Senior guards Peyton Filius, Brandy Lambourne and Lacey Waid highlight the returning talent and are each four-year varsity players for coach Kraske.
Filius was named All-State and First-Team All-Conference as a junior, and was dominant late in the season. Filius led the Ponies with more than 12 points per game. She also shot 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point range, while also grabbing more than four rebounds per game. Lambourne was also named First-Team All-Conference as a junior as she scored 10 points per game, shooting 50 percent from the field. And as the starting point guard, Lambourne also had nearly 40 assists a year ago. Waid got recognized with Honorable Mention honors as a junior, but was invaluable for the HHS defense. Waid typically locks onto a team’s best scorer and has the ability to shut them down. Waid also had 21 steals and averaged over five rebounds per game last season.
Breck Don and Haley Ohm also return for their senior seasons and are primed to perform very well. Don adds to the guard depth, while Ohm’s post play will greatly benefit the Ponies on offense and defense. Ohm has improved steadily every season and should balance the Blue Pony attack with her presence inside.
Junior Morgan Mazurkiewicz also returns for the Ponies, after earning Second-Team honors a year ago. Mazurkiewicz led the team with 46 assists, and pitched in seven points per game, while shooting 31 percent from 3-point range. Junior Tori Mazurkiewicz is also slated to return, as is Dani Wagner, Rachel Majeres and Lindsey Kudrna. The Ponies are led by a good group of veteran returners, but may have to also rely on some young talent that doesn’t have much for varsity minutes due to the returning starters who have been in the program for four years.
Outside of Ohm, the Ponies are somewhat undersized. But that plays well into the style of ball HHS runs on offense and defense. The quickness and speed at the guard position gives the offense the ability to push the ball and score quickly, while on defense it gives them the ability to press the opposition full court or in the half court.
“Everybody who steps on to the floor is expected to play well,” Kraske said. “That is the bottom line. I don’t care if they are a senior or a freshman; they just have to play well. Every kid needs to contribute to the success of the program.”
And with the strength of the schedule, success won’t just come to the Ponies, even though they are a veteran team.
Belgrade, Lewistown, Livingston, and Browning should all show improvement this season. And while the Blue Ponies are garnering all of the early attention, their conference and nonconference schedules will be a challenge from start to finish. This season, the Ponies will face Malta, CMR, Great Falls High, Conrad, Rocky Boy and Fairfield in nonconference play. Mix those games in with the contests against the rest of the Central A, and the Ponies will see no breaks in the competition clear through the state tournament.
Belgrade and Browning should push for the No. 2 spot again this year. Last year Browning joined the Ponies at the Class A state tournament after a lopsided HHS victory in the Central A title game. Livingston and Lewistown have been down the last couple of seasons and on paper don’t look too much improved just yet.
But the Panthers also lost a lot of top tier talent, none bigger than the loss of Dylan Fowler, an All-State and First-Team All-Conference selection. But the Panthers also return players like senior Tanna Holliday, a Second-Team All-Conference selection last year, and senior Taylor Woolman, an Honorable Mention selection from last year. The Indians lost Marti Eaglefeathers, an All-State selection, but return the likes of sophomore Tiara Gilham, a First-Team selection as a freshman, and senior Courtney Little Dog, an Honorable Mention selection as a junior. Makaela Olson should also lead Lewistown as she enters her senior season, while Megan Schoenen was a standout for Livingston last year as a sophomore.
“I think the league will actually be tighter this year than what it has been, but we love our kids and like our chances,” Kraske said. “And we tweaked our schedule a bit to add teams like Fairfield. But with Malta, Conrad and Fairfield those are tough games, then you add Class AA CMR and Great Falls High. We also have our league games, so this could be a situation where we are playing the best teams we have ever played consistently every weekend. Some years we have a team on our schedule where it doesn’t matter how we play, we could beat them, but we don’t have that. We will have our hands full with a challenging schedule.”
The road to what could end with a state title will begin with two nonconference games this weekend. Friday Havre will face the Class B Malta Mustangs in Malta. And Saturday the Ponies will host the Class AA CMR Rustlers at the Havre High Gymnasium at 5 p.m.