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Missoula Sentinel girls' basketball head coach Karen Deden watches her players during Sentinel's first day of practice Thursday. Sentinel starts the season having won the last three State AA high school championships.

Despite a graduation exodus of near titanic proportions that sapped Missoula Sentinel of four starters, a head coach of one of Western AA's six other programs still voted the Spartans as a conference preseason favorite.

That's respect for a program right there.

Should Sentinel meet those expectations, it'll face a far more uphill battle than in recent years. The three-time defending State AA champion Spartans graduated six seniors in all, five of whom are now competing in collegiate athletics.

Without that corps -- which over the last two seasons included guards Olivia Roberts (Wyoming) and Maddie Keast (Montana) -- 2014-15 could be the season for a new program to shine.

And Sentinel coach Karen Deden has her eye on a few prospects.

"I think that Glacier will be dominant," Deden began. "The other thing that will be a surprise is Helena High. High has a lot of depth. They had size and depth when we got to see them this summer."

Kalispell Glacier, a state qualifier the past three seasons and one that lost to Sentinel in last year's semifinals, is chock full of athleticism. The Pack is down one college player in Cassi Hashley (Carroll), but a number of tall bodies are ready to take her place.

Brielle Bumgarner and Katie Wiley are each 6-foot-1 and Hailee Bennett is an all-state guard who averaged 12.2 points per game last year as a sophomore.

"We have the ability to have an inside and an outside game this year more than we ever have had in the past," Glacier coach Kris Salonen said.

Helena High's forward duo of Jenna Starke and Shanna Floerchinger give the Bengals a good shot to improve on an 8-13 record from last year. Both girls stand 5-10.

It would be unwise to count out Sentinel, though. The Spartans haven't missed a state tournament since the spring of 2002 under Coach Deden. For that streak to continue, Sentinel will require its few returners to play above and beyond.

That'll need to be especially true of point guard Lexi Steele, the team's lone returning starter.

"She's definitely going to have to score a little bit more and I think Shannon Worster will have to score," Deden said. "We've made some adjustments offensively for kinda who we have. ... They're fast and we'll have to play to our strengths and stay away from our lack of size weakness."

Steele averaged 4.1 points per game last year with 3.7 assists. Worster, another guard, was good for 4.0 points.

Missoula Hellgate stands to improve quite a bit over last year with all five starters back in the gym.

Guard Darby Henthorn and 6-1 post Lexi Duce were both honorable mention all-conference selections. Duce averaged 10.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a junior.

Missoula Big Sky lost some key pieces from its state-qualifying squad but does have guard Maddy Shaide and 6-3 post player Anna Gragg back. A group of upperclassmen with varying experience levels will need to fill in the rest of the holes.

No one in Western AA will be able to match up with Gragg, though. She averaged six points, four rebounds and a block last season as just a sophomore at the post.

Despite earning a share of the league title, Helena Capital finds itself in a similar spot to Sentinel. Only Kenzie Johnston returns from the starting lineup.

She is a tremendous talent, her vetaran coach Bill Pilgeram was quick to point out.

"She will be our offensive leader and be asked to take on a bigger role scoring for us this season," Pilgeram wrote via email of Johnston, a Lady Griz recruit. "She can shoot it, sees the floor very well and can penetrate at any time."

She averaged 10.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists as a junior last year.

Kalispell Flathead faces another tough task with just one starter returning from the Bravettes' 5-16 campaign a year ago. Guard Jessica Simmons again leads the offense.

Players to watch: PG Lexi Steele, sr., 5-5, Sentinel; G Hailee Bennett, jr., 5-7, Glacier; F Katie Wiley, sr., 6-1, Glacier; G Kenzie Johnston, sr., 5-7, Capital; F Jenna Starke, sr., 5-10, Helena; P Anna Gragg, jr., 6-3, Big Sky; P Lexi Duce, sr., 6-1, Hellgate.

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