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Loaded Pony girls ready for more



December 6, 2018

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Kyndall Keller, a two-time Class A All-State standout, and the Havre High girls basketball team tip off a new season Friday in Havre. The Blue Ponies are the defending Class A state champions, and they bring a 24-game winning streak into the 2018-19 season. Havre hosts Billings Central Friday night in the HHS gymnasium.

One key to maintaining success is knowing how to handle it and when it comes to high school basketball teams in Montana, few have had more success in recent years than the Havre High girls basketball team.

Havre has repeatedly been a state tournament participant under head coach Dustin Kraske, and last season, the Blue Ponies won their second state championship since 2014, defeating Hardin in the title game to cap a perfect season (24-0). Now, HHS has to deal with the pressure of being the defending state champion, while also being the favorite to win another. Yet, according to Kraske, the Ponies are just trying to take it one day and one practice at a time.

"We have goals," HHS head coach Dustin Kraske said. "But right now our goal is just getting better every day in everything that we do. As long as we keep doing that, the rest will take care of itself."

The Ponies are known for their work ethic, and this season, Kraske will have to work to replace four key players from last season's state championship team, starting with All-State performers Marca Herron and Danielle Wallace. Kaylee Nystrom and Kyley Verploegen were two other graduates. Of the four players, three got scholarships to play college basketball, while Nystrom is running cross country.

Those losses were significant and there is no minimizing them, however, the Ponies are about as well positioned to reload as you can be. For starters, HHS still has Kyndall Keller, a two-time All-State performer who was among the leading scorers in Class A last season. Keller is a junior and joining her as a returning starter is fellow junior Kadia Miller, a two-time All-State runner in cross country who took on a greater role offensively at the end of last season.

Keller and Miller will be fixtures in the starting lineup for the Ponies, but the other spots could have some fluidity. One player who should see plenty of playing time is sophomore guard Kylie Walker, who saw significant minutes last season and made a clutch 3-pointer in the state quarterfinals against Hamilton. Katie Wirtzberger, Jessa Chvilicek, Sam Oliver, Kassidy Compton, Abbey Morse, Lauren Kato, Loy Waid and Sadie Filius are others who will see varsity minutes for the Ponies this season.

"I think that we have some really hard-working kids," Kraske said. "We aren't going to be able to replace those kids that we lost but I think we have some kids that can step into those roles. That is what we are still trying to figure out in a way, just how everyone fits on this team and what the roles are going to be."

In terms of the Central A conference, the Ponies will be a heavy favorite to come away with the top seed for the Eastern A Divisional tournament, which Havre won last year after beating Hardin, the same team HHS knocked off for the Class A state championship. Divisionals will take place Feb. 20-23 at the Metra in Billings.

"I think that our league is going to be pretty solid," Kraske said. "Livingston is much better and they might have the best team they have had in years. Belgrade has some talent back and as a whole, the Eastern has some quality teams. Billings Central is a really good team and it will be exciting to get a chance to play them and Glendive, two state tournament teams from last season. Laurel is another solid team and Miles City is really athletic. Also, Hardin is always tough."

Havre will open the season with a 24-game winning streak and it should be favored to win most of its games this season. Billings Central, Glendive, Livingston, Belgrade and Browning will be the top threats Havre will play in Class A during the regular season. The Ponies will also take on Great Falls High and CMR, along with Malta and Fairfield.

"I really like our schedule early in the season," Kraske said. "We get to open the season against Billings Central, who is one of the better teams in the Eastern A and a team that made the state tournament last season. Then we go on the road to Glendive, another state tournament team and then our next game is against Livingston, who should be much improved. I just think that's a great way for us to go out and play and see where things are at. We will find out some things about ourselves right away and I think that's exciting. It's a fun opportunity for us to play some quality competition right off the bat."

If the Ponies make it back to the state tournament, it will be in Great Falls once again at the Four Seasons Arena. The past two times it has been held there, Havre has won the state championship. The girls Class A state tournament is set for March 7-9. This is the first year the Class A girls and boys tournaments will be combined.

Havre will open the season at home against Billings Central in a high-profile matchup between two teams that should be contenders in Class A. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. Friday night inside the HHS gymnasium. Havre will then close out the opening weekend with a road game against Glendive Saturday night.


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