After five games in the first nine days of the 2003-04 regular season, to say the Havre High boys basketball team is just a little tired would be a bit of an understatement. It's kind of like saying that stores are just a little busy on Christmas Eve.
The Ponies are coming off of an emotional and grueling three-game stretch in which they captured important road wins over Chinook and Harlem, as well as a last-second thriller over Glasgow in their home opener Saturday night in Havre.
According to head coach Mark West, his team is physically, mentally and emotionally drained. Not exactly what he's looking for as his team plays its toughest competition to date.
The not-so-rested Ponies will return to the road tonight to face their most daunting task of the season when they take on Class AA's No. 1 ranked team in the CMR Rustlers (5-0) at the CMR Fieldhouse in Great Falls at 5:45 p.m. And while the No. 2-ranked Class A Ponies (4-1) are tired and also dealing with the flu, West believes they should have enough gas left in the tank to get up for the vaunted Rustlers.
"This is a huge test for our basketball team," West said. "I know the kids are tired right now and we have some kids that are sick, but I also think that these kids are excited and motivated to play a great basketball team like CMR."
Like the Blue Ponies, the Rustlers enter tonight's contest coming off of an emotional win. Tuesday night CMR took the first of two meetings with crosstown rival Great Falls High, 55-51, in front of a capacity crowd at the CMR Fieldhouse.
Despite the win, the Rustlers enter tonight's matchup with even more of a personnel problem than the Ponies have. CMR will be playing its second-straight contest without leading scorer Don Degooyer (18.5 points per game), who is out with an eye injury. Starting center Greg Gysberg (8.2 ppg) sustained a knee injury in the GFH game that could limit his minutes.
"CMR is really banged up right now and normally you would think that would give us an edge," West said. "But they go nine or 10 guys deep and all of them can play. They are a physical team, and their best characteristic is how well they play defense."
Most people figured the Rustlers would be in somewhat of a rebuilding mode after losing three all-state players and four starters to graduation last season. CMR graduated all-state performers Jason Goodman, Brady Leaf and Zach Danelson as well as starting swingman Royce Fulp.
But instead of rebuilding, the Rustlers just reloaded. Senior Travis Hartman has assumed the point guard duties full-time and senior Ryan Bagley has become a full-time starter. DeGooyer, Gysberg and senior Lonnie Fulp were all role players last season and now are all starters. And perhaps the biggest surprise for veteran head coach Mike McLean's team has been 6-3 senior Jon Buffington, who is averaging 11 points per game and is coming off of a career-high 26-point outburst against the Bison.
"Those kids have a lot of experience playing together, and they play so hard," West said. "This game will be a tremendous challenge for us, and I think we'll find out where we stand as a team at the end of it."
One benefit the Ponies have for the first time in several years is the ability to physically match up with the Rustlers. While CMR does start three players over 6-0, none of them are taller than the 6-4 Bagely, which has West feeling better about his team's chances.
"This is the first time that we have been able to feel like we match up with (CMR)," West said. "But our concern is still defending them on the interior and getting after the rebounds. We have to do those things well in order to play with them."
Another key for the Ponies will be limiting turnovers, which is something they did not do in two defeats to the Rustlers last season. However, Havre's turnovers are way down this season, thanks in large part to the maturation of junior point guard Marc Mariani. West is hoping that the trend continues.
"We know CMR will bring pressure against us and I think the kids are well prepared for that," West said. "Marc Mariani has done a great job in taking care of the ball and making good decisions. I know he will be ready to do the same in this game because we cannot give (CMR) any easy scoring opportunities."
After the contest with the Rustlers, Havre will have Friday night off before returning home to close out the 2003 portion of its schedule against Lewistown. The Eagles are winless on the season and suffered heavy losses to graduation last season. Still, West knows his team needs to be prepared to play and can't overlook its conference rival on Saturday night.
"Lewistown is still an athletic team and it is always a battle when we play each other," West said. "I don't think we have played our best basketball yet this season, but we are playing well right now. We want to go into Christmas break on a positive note. That is why we can't afford to look past Lewistown. We have to be ready to play Saturday night."
Tonight's game between CMR and Havre is set to tip off at 5:45 so that the CMR Fieldhouse can begin preparations for the annual CMR Holiday Classic wrestling tournament. Saturday night's contest between the Ponies and Eagles will get under way at 7:30 p.m at the Havre High gymnasium. Both games can be heard on 610 KOJM-AM.