Their time: Ponies head to state
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When looking at the list of Class A talent making the trip to this year's girls state tournament, it's apparent that the Havre High Blue Ponies have an uphill battle ahead of them. But if any team can emerge from an underdog status to state supremacy it would have to be the 11-11 Ponies. They overcame a tough loss to Lewistown at the Central A tournament, and surprised everybody with a win over Livingston in a Monday night challenge game two weeks in Great Falls. Now, the Ponies will face their first challenge at the Dale Berry Court in Hamilton as they take on the two-time defending state champion Anaconda Copperheads (17-3) at tonight 8. The state tournament will run from today through Saturday, but other firstround matchups include the Billings Central Rams (15-6) facing the Columbia Falls Wildcats (14-6) at 12:30, the Butte Central Maroons (12-8) facing the Frenchtown Broncs (13-10) at 2, and the Sidney Eagles (18-2) taking on the Polson Pirates (14-6) at 6:30. Including this season, the Ponies will have made the trip to the state tournament for four straight years. It is a big honor for any team to make the trip, and while the Ponies have been fortunate enough to make four straight appearances, they are trying to instill just how special this really is, and making sure to take the time to enjoy the trip. "It may seem like we have been lucky enough to go," Havre High head coach Dustin Kraske said. "But we can't lose sight of that this doesn't happen all the time. Lets enjoy going down there. We are going to enjoy being a part of a state tournament and I know we will represent our league well and we will play hard. That's all I can ask of our kids, is to give their best effort." The Maroons will be making their first trip in 28 years, and last year when the Belgrade Panthers made the cut, it was their first appearance in over 20 years as well. No. 1 Anaconda out of the South west is no stranger to state, and the Copperheads have to be a clear favorite. They have won two championships in as many years, and despite losing University of Montana prospect Tory Hill in early February to a torn ACL in her right knee, they haven't missed a beat. But the East's No. 1 Eagles also have to be thrown into the conversation of strong favorites. "I think any team coming out of the East would have to be a favorite," Kraske said. "The East is a real salty league with a lot of good teams and good coaches. I would like to think they are probably up there." The Rams are also a very athletic team that could surprise some teams, as well as the Wildcats who are making their second straight appearance. And with the last week to adequately prepare for the Copperheads, the Ponies know they have a tough first game, but also know what they have to do to hopefully come away with a win and a ticket to the semifinals. "What impresses me the most about Anaconda is how all of the players that play are fundamentally good." Kraske said. "I think they just have a lot of very solid role players. We are going to have our hands full, we have to guard them all." Anaconda is led by 5-7 senior Lisa Laslovich after losing Hill. The Ponies have seen her play before and know just how good of defender she is. She is also a leader and captain for the Copperheads, and makes sure they play with a very high intensity level. Senior Korey Krumm (5-9) will also be a terror down low. She is a very solid post player and will gain a lot of the Pony attention on defense. But along with Krumm, every player who steps on the floor for the Copperheads will attract a lot of defensive attention. In comparison, the Copperheads have an offense a lot like Livingston, in regards that every body on the floor is a shooter and offensive threat. As far as the Pony offense is concerned, they are going to be up against a very solid man and pressure defense. "First of all we are going to have to value the basketball and handle their pressure," Kraske said. "We have a few little wrinkles we are going to put in to handle that, which is easy to say, but will be harder to do. All of their kids get up and pressure you and play hard." But if the Ponies did have one advantage, it would be their size and ability down low. Hayley Donovan and Paighton Gilman will present the Ponies with a good height advantage. Both Donovan and Gilman will have to make the plays down low, and take advantage of their size. And if and when Cassi Darrah slides down low as well, that will be another key scorer in the paint. "We have to make an effort to work the ball inside," Kraske said. "And like always, we have to finish at the hoop. We have to be more offensively aggressive." The Pressure the Ponies are expecting to see will be a lot like what they saw when they faced CMR and Malta earlier this season. And to combat the pressure, the Ponies are also hoping to have a good night of outside shooting. HHS has shot very well this last week of practice. And if Jaclyn Evans, Christina Mack, Darrah and even Cali Freier can get things going from outside the 3-point arc, it will really open some things up offensively. Knowing how tough the Copperheads are going to be, the Ponies have put in a lot of time to prepare. But at the same time, the Blue Ponies don't want to forget about what they do as a team, and what they have done well to get to this point. Kraske is making sure to put an extra emphasis on their areas of play. They have to go inside, play inside out, catch and shoot without thinking about the shot, stay active on defense, communicate on defense, execute their zone defense well and rebound on both ends of the floor, especially on defense to take away second chance opportunities. "Sometimes we lose sight on what we do well," Kraske said. "We have started to talk a little less about Anaconda and a little more about what our strengths are." Overall, the Ponies would be very pleased to open up tournament play over the No. 1 and favored Copperheads. But just as they have all season, the Ponies aren't determining success and failure from wins and losses. Still, HHS has been a giant killer in the past, knocking off unbeaten Glendive in the first round a year ago as part of many big wins Havre has had at state the last three years. "We are hoping to play better than the last time we stepped onto the floor," Kraske said. "Of course we are happy and excited to go to state and play, but we aren't satisfied with that. We don't talk much about going to state, we talk about playing our best basketball, which I think we are doing. We are going to go down there and play as well as we can, and we are going to be happy regardless of the results because we gave our best effort." Tonight the Ponies will face the defending state champion Copperheads at the Dale Berry Court in Hamilton as they begin their Class A state tournament at 8.