HELENA — Last year’s State AA girls basketball championship game featured Helena High and Missoula Sentinel, and those two teams could be in the mix again, along with a half-dozen or so other clubs.
Helena beat Sentinel 46-41 for the title, which was its first state championship in 20 years.
Sentinel, though, was dealing with both the loss of University of Montana recruit Shelby Schweyen and all-conference freshman Lexi Deden to knee injuries. There was also that bout with a stomach illness that struck most of the remaining Spartans after their state semifinal game last season.
These aren't excuses, they're simply facts. They also help illustrate why Sentinel (21-2 last season) — which returns five players who were starters at different times during the season, including four who received postseason accolades — have to be considered favorites in the 2017-18 season.
"...I’m not saying anything (negative) about Helena High, Helena High’s a good team, but I just feel the way we were playing in the first two games (at state), that (with) a healthy team, we win that game Saturday night," Sentinel coach Karen Deden said after last year's title matchup. “... We’ll all get our flu shots and have catered meals next year."
Along with Deden's all-conference nod, senior forwards Jordyn Schweyen and Kylie Frohlich were both chosen to the all-state team. Jordyn Schweyen, Frohlich and junior Emma Blakely were tabbed to the all-tourney team.
Jordyn Schweyen and Frohlich are also tabbed as future Lady Griz, as is Helena's Jamie Pickens.
And Pickens returns to the defending champs, too.
The Bengals, who finished 20-3, lost three starters to graduation, while returning a pair of all-state selections this winter.
Bengal senior guard Kamden Hilborn, at 5-foot-7, was selected all-state, in addition to be named Tournament MVP. Pickens, a 6-2 junior post, made both all-state and all-tourney.
Billings Senior defeated Bozeman 42-34 for third-place. The Broncs finished at 13-6, and will return four starters to the squad, led by all-stater Kola Bad Bear. Bad Bear is a 6-1 junior post.
The Hawks, who were the 2016 state titlist, captured last year’s Eastern Conference crown, and wound up at 16-8. They return just two starters, with Alex Carey, a 5-10 senior, having been a 2017 all-state selection at guard/forward. Lost to graduation was all-stater Rhianna Rogers.
Billings West (13-6) and Great Falls CMR (15-8) both lost in the consolation semifinals last year.
The Rustlers returning stalwarts include all-state pick Addison Gardner and all-conference selection Kyra Willis, both of whom are senior guards. CMR also has two other seniors that started games last year. West returns just two starters.
Capital High, two years removed from their AA championship in 2015, qualified for state last year and finished at 14-9. The Bruins return all five starters, featuring 6-3 all-state senior center Taylor Sullivan. Junior guard Sydney Sheridan was an all-conference selection last year.
The eighth team in last year’s state tourney was Kalispell Glacier, which is considered to be among the top teams in the West this year.
Missoulian and 406mtsports.com reporter Kyle Houghtaling contributed to this story.