MISSOULA — Longtime Columbia Falls basketball coach Cary Finberg could have called it quits after last season and nobody would have blamed him.
The Wildkats skipper, headed into his eighth year as the girls' basketball coach in the Northwest Montana town, would have gone out on top. After coaching the Columbia Falls boys' basketball team to five Class A titles in 19 years at the helm, he finally helped deliver C. Falls a girls' crown for the first time since 1983.
The 73-50 win over Hardin, last year's top team from the East, also marked the final prep game of Cydney Finberg's basketball career. Cyd is Cary's youngest daughter and a part of a trio of seniors who graduated with the all-state moniker next to their name.
But coach Finberg — perhaps to the chagrin of the rest of the Class A field — is back.
"...I think a lot of people thought last year was going to be my last year. I just think everybody thinking with my daughter going out and obviously finishing on top, but I don’t really think I was ever thinking it was my last year," Finberg said. "...After three or four weeks of being away from it I was ready to get back in there with the younger kids and I like the challenge of this year’s team.
"(We have) a good freshman and sophomore class coming back and I wanted to see what this team can accomplish. I’m excited to have a different challenge."
The returning champs do return all-state guard Dani Douglas, and coach Finberg said his Wildcats will rely more heavily on the 5-foot-4 senior spark plug.
Columbia Falls will also be defending their title in a different landscape.
The Northwest A added three new teams after suggested reclassification from the Montana High School Association was approved. Browning, Libby and Ronan all join the fold, while Frenchtown kicks to a Southwest A conference that placed Butte Central, Corvallis and Hamilton into last year's state tournament.
Ronan provides one of the more interesting storylines as the Maidens were a perfect 23-0 headed into the Class B state tournament last season before faltering in their first two games.
The Maidens lost a pair of all-staters in the dynamic cousin duo of Alicia and Lee Camel, but they return all-state guard Micalann McCrea for her senior year.
The MSU-Billings recruit should give first-year head coach Steve Woll plenty of confidence that his team can navigate the competitive Class A field.
"You're not going to find a bigger competitor than her," Woll said of McCrea. "She's gritty, hard-nosed, she has a will to do whatever it takes to win. The biggest thing for her is how is she going to include her teammates to make us better?
"...It's going to be trial and error and adjustments. I don't know and I can't foresee until we get on the court against some opponents and get some game film going and see who rises to the top."
That Western division is tough. In the Southwest A, perennial powerhouse Butte Central, champions in 2016, returns three-time all-state guard Kloie Thatcher. Frenchtown's Emilie Hinrichs and Alivia Williams are back after second-team all-conference seasons and Dillon brings back the league MVP in Brynly Fitzgerald.
Corvallis' Calla Haldorson returns after an all-conference sophomore season, too, and the Blue Devils also added a 6-foot-3 transfer from Whitehall.
Hamilton also welcomes a transfer student from Kansas in Cariann Kunkel. Broncs head coach Mark Albert expects her to fit right in with a team that clinched the West's No. 4 seed last year at state.
"We return a lot of experience and with (Kunkel), we should be very competitive," Albert said.
Awaiting the West, though, are a competitive Eastern and Central conferences, including Hardin, which topped Hamilton in first-round state-tournament action last year. The Bulldogs ultimately brought home the silver trophy.
Hardin (22-2 overall last season) returns a pair of starters at the guard position and fifth year head coach Cindy Farmer expects her team to run an uptempo style of offense.
"Our guards (Sharmayne Hardy and Karissa DuShane) are experienced and we have good depth in that area. We will be an up tempo team, but disciplined," Farmer told 406mtsports.com.
The entire Eastern A could be described in a similar fashion as Hardin's offense: tough and talented. Laurel's Aspen Cotter, Miles City's Kaelei Koenig and Billings Central's Olivia Moten-Schell all return after seasons that garnered all-state recognition.
Glendive coach Kayla Rivas essentially said it was a pick'em as to who would finish atop the East.
"I really am not sure (who will come out on top) — I think it will be a very competitive league top to bottom this year," she said.
You also cant count out Belgrade and Havre in the Central A. The Blue Ponies, who return sophomore Kyndall Keller after an all-state freshman season, won it all in 2014.
That's the last time a team from outside the West has brought home a state title.