Montana high schools opened practice for spring sports last Monday.
But to be honest, the magic from the winter sports season – girls’ basketball in particular – hasn’t worn off yet.
Several teams from western Montana earned trophies at state over the last two months, highlighted by the Missoula Sentinel girls’ basketball team, which pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory en route to the Class AA state championship two weeks ago in Bozeman.
The Spartans, behind a 38-point performance from D.J. Reinhardt, beat top-ranked and previously unbeaten Bozeman 66-60 in overtime at MSU’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse to win their first state title since 1993.
“Life couldn’t be better,” said Sentinel’s Karen Deden, who guided her alma mater to a championship in her 12th season as coach. She also led the Spartans to a AA title as a player. “When you’re coaching, it’s kind of like a movie. You can’t believe it’s happening, and that it’s happening so well. I’m still in awe.”
Sentinel isn’t the only champion from the region, though.
It’s been more than a month since it was their turn to hoist a first-place trophy at state, but the Corvallis and Kalispell Glacier wrestling teams each had memorable runs.
The Blue Devils won their third state championship overall, but first since 2002, while the Wolfpack won a title for the first time in school history.
Here’s a look back at those and some other trophy-worthy performances from this winter.
The miraculous run by the Sentinel girls was one for the ages.
The fourth-ranked Spartans, who finished the year with a 19-4 record, weren’t expected to knock off Bozeman, which had won 24 straight games heading into the championship contest, including an earlier 47-38 victory over Sentinel during the regular season.
“It’s still so unbelievable and you just keep reading all these different stories from all these different sportswriters who all say kinda the same thing,” said Deden as recently as last week, “which is what an amazing game it was. Not only did we win, which is awesome, but the fact that it was such a well-played game, too.”
The game featured 13 ties, including four in the fourth quarter, and more than its share of big shots.
At the time, none seemed bigger than a deep 3-pointer by Bozeman’s Shanae Gilham that tied the game 53-53 with 11 seconds left in regulation. Sentinel’s Amanda Bearmedicine just missed a mid-range jumper at the buzzer that would’ve won the game.
But that’s OK, because Reinhardt found her own clutch stroke in OT. She scored 11 of her team’s 17 points in the extra period, including her fourth trey and an 8-of-8 effort from the line. The senior guard finished 14 of 14 from the free-throw line and 4 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Deden called Reinhardt’s final game of her prep career fitting and “inhuman,” but also praised everyone else on her team in the aftermath.
“As much as D.J. had the game of her life, I can’t say enough about the other girls,” Deden said. “You think through all the little things, (and) it was darn near flawless, but it took that to win. I can’t say enough.”
Sentinel’s other starters were senior Kennedy Fulbright, juniors Liz Harper and Bearmedicine, and sophomore Olivia Roberts, who finished with 16 points in a supporting role. The Spartans knew they were good – they were state runners-up the year before – but Deden knew the Hawks were an experienced bunch, too.
“You look forward to something like this all year every year and then when it happens you’re like ‘Oh my gosh!’” she said. “We expected a good season, but they (the players) knew Bozeman was out there. ... To pull it off, was pretty special.”
There were no team champions from the west, but there were a bunch of fantastic runners-up and third-place finishes by the boys.
Kalispell Flathead was perhaps the most surprising of the bunch, having entered the State AA tournament one game over .500 and as a No. 3 seed from the Western AA.
The Braves rattled off two impressive wins over Billings Senior and rival Kalispell Glacier on their way to the championship game.
Once there, Flathead ran into a buzzsaw in No. 1 Billings West, which beat the Braves 61-48 in the title game.
“I can’t give these kids enough credit for what they’ve done in the last few days, not only for themselves, but also for Flathead High School,” said longtime Braves coach Fred Febach, whose club finished with a 13-11 mark. “This was a great experience for them, great memories for these young guys and I really appreciate it.”
The Missoula Hellgate boys made a nice charge at the State AA tourney, too, earning their second third-place finish in a row.
The Knights, thanks to the dynamic play of senior Zach Peevey, rattled off three straight wins, including a 55-39 decision over Helena Capital, to claim the consolation crown.
The Columbia Falls machine ran smack dab into the Dillon dynasty at the State A boys’ tourney as the Beavers won their third title in six years.
The Wildcats, who were seeking their fifth championship since 2003, were shooting for a second straight title game win over Dillon. The same two programs also met in the 2009 finale. This time around, the Beavers cruised to the 54-39 victory.
Not to be outdone, Florence took third at the State B tourney for a third straight season after beating Whitehall 58-34 back on the first weekend of March.
Coach Sam Baerlocher’s crew, which graduates just one senior off this year’s team, made the semifinals before falling to eventual state champ Malta.
It’s not very often that a wrestling tournament comes down to the very last match, but that’s exactly what happened in February when Corvallis won the State A title with a nail-biting finish at the Billings Metra.
Coach Jeff Nagel said Corvallis won its previous two state titles – the first one as a B-C school – in dramatic fashion. This one was no different.
Havre’s Eli Hinebauch held off Laurel’s Tommy Cooper in the very last match of the two-day tournament to secure the Blue Devils’ slim margin. Had Cooper upset Hinebauch in the finals, the Locomotives would have won their second straight State A title. Instead, Corvallis held on with 222.5 points; Laurel had 219.
The Blue Devils also had one of western Montana’s four individual champs from Class A – freshman 105-pounder Chase Conner.
Libby laid claim to half of the champs from the area, including two-time winner Kyle Leir. The senior won at 145 pounds, while teammate Mitch Haugen, a junior, won at 130. Columbia Falls’ Shonn Roberts won his individual title at 98.
Glacier, led by state champ Shane St. Onge (160), scored 253 points to win its first state championship in wrestling by 15 points. The Wolfpack, who were runners-up a year earlier, began wrestling in 2007-08.
There were just two individual champs from the region in the Class B-C ranks, including one repeat winner in Barrett Stanghill, who wrestles for the Drummond-Philipsburg co-op. Stanghill won at 160 pounds, while Thompson Falls senior Ben Conover won at 145.
The Hellgate boys’ and girls’ swim squads both took third at the state meet in Great Falls in February.
Great Falls CMR and Helena High were named the co-champions on the girls’ side after each team scored 187 points.
Hellgate, behind a stellar performance by freshman Hanni Leach, closed with 167 points.
Leach won the 100-yard backstroke in 56.65 seconds and swam a leg on the Knights’ winning 200 medley relay team– along with sophomores Hailey Jacobsen, Brenna Staffel and Katie Mitchell – as well as their third-place 400 free relay.
Sentinel freshman Andrea Schmidt finished second in the finals of the girls’ 50 free.
On the boys’ side, Hellgate didn’t have an individual winner, but the Knights scored 161 points. Bozeman nipped Helena, 193-192, for the AA boys’ title.
Hellgate’s 200 medley relay finished second and it’s 200 free relay placed third.
Sophomore Patrick Martyak led the Knights with a pair of second places in the 50 free and the 100 breaststroke. He also swam on the relays.