GREAT FALLS -- The story should have focused on Missoula Sentinel's dominance. It should have touted the Spartans' perfect record, their reign at the top of the rankings and their impending march to state.
Then came a twist.
Undefeated Sentinel lost claim to that name on the final day of the regular season after post Lexi Deden's ACL gave out, the third Spartan to suffer such an injury in the past six months.
But Sentinel, a still impressive 19-1 and Western AA's top seed as the State AA's combined boys' and girls' tournament begins Thursday in Great Falls, is out to prove adversity only makes the Spartans stronger.
Head coach Karen Deden and her staff met with the players last week during their bye to state.
"We were pretty open and honest," she said. "This is where we need you to get in a week and a half. This is what we need you to step up and do. We're going to be there for you and we can do this as a team."
The Sentinel girls -- who along with the Sentinel and Missoula Hellgate boys open state play at the Four Seasons Arena -- rebounded when sophomore star Shelby Schweyen suffered an ACL tear in January. They can do it again, Deden said, after their 6-foot-1 freshman phenom endured the same fate.
"The size is something that added to our ability to play defense so we've lost some of that. We still have size, but the thing is you lose the experience," said Deden, who is Lexi's aunt.
They'll put the new look to the test for the first time at 8 p.m. Thursday against Billings West (13-6). Juniors Jordyn Schweyen (10.4 ppg) and Kylie Frohlich (10.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg) will be relied upon even more, while players like sophomore Emma Blakely (9.2 ppg) and junior Kayla Daily will be asked to step up in the time of need.
Eastern AA upstart Great Falls CMR is also on Sentinel's side of the bracket and seeded second thanks to the big year of transfer Tristin Achenbach (11.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg). Across the way is West No. 2 Helena (17-3) and East top seed Bozeman (14-6), who could be slated for an intriguing semifinal showdown.
For the third year in a row, Missoula Hellgate drew Great Falls in its first round pairing. This time will act as the rubber match after the Knights last year avenged a loss as the top seed in 2015.
"And they still have their stud in (Brenden) Howard; that's the one thing that hasn't changed," Hellgate coach Jeff Hays said.
Howard, a senior and Eastern Washington signee, leads the state in scoring at 24.1 points per game and is adding 10.5 rebounds. No other player on the team averages more than nine points.
Without question the key to stopping the Bison (14-7) is stopping Howard.
The Knights (15-5) will look to keep a streak of six straight years with a top-three finish alive. They have won eight of nine games and earned a bye to state. It all dates back to a late-January loss to top-seed Kalispell Glacier by a point, Hays said.
"The guys turned a corner at that point, a little more disciplined and more focused," he said. "... I think we realized we were close."
Freshman point guard Rollie Worster leads the way with 14.6 ppg and senior Derrius Collins is at 12.3.
Across the bracket, West No. 3 Missoula Sentinel (11-10) faces two-time defending champion Billings Skyview (15-3). The teams met before Christmas in Missoula, a 61-49 Falcons' victory, but Sentinel is a different team than it was then. Once-hobbled senior Mitch Roberts is healthy and the Spartans also played that game without senior Griffin Line.
"One thing we've done a better job of is our confidence has grown," coach Jay Jagelski said. "We're a very complete team right now and that's the biggest change from December."
Skyview, like many teams in the East, has a big scorer is senior RayQuan Evans (18.2 ppg). Sentinel is led by junior Sam Beighle (16.5 ppg).
The winner of that game could get West top seed Glacier (17-3). The Wolfpack is led by Jaxen Hashley (16.7 ppg, state-best 11.9 rpg) and is still seeking the program's first ever state trophy.