While Class A, B and C boys' basketball teams head to state tournaments this weekend, berths at next week's State AA tourneys go up for grabs in playoff games Thursday and Friday.
Kalispell will host a pair of Western AA boys' playoff tilts Thursday night and the Montana High School Association managed to do a little rescheduling so hoop fans in the Flathead Valley will get a chance to catch both contests.
Originally slated to start at 7 p.m., the playoff contest between fifth-place Helena High and No. 4 seed Kalispell Glacier will begin at 6 p.m. at the Wolfpack's gym. The battle between sixth-seed Missoula Hellgate and third-place finisher Kalispell Flathead was bumped from its original start time of 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The Glacier boys finished the regular season 13-7 and split their two meetings with the 9-11 Bengals as each school won on its home court. Helena opened on a 17-2 run and coasted to a 56-46 victory over Glacier in Helena on Jan. 30. Twenty days later in Kalispell, the Wolfpack, backed by 19 points from Colter Hanson and 17 from Shay Smithwick-Hann, downed the Bengals 58-43.
Glacier enters having won four of its last six, but is coming off a 48-45 loss at Flathead in the Wolfpack's regular-season finale last Friday.
The Braves (11-8) earned their third seed by edging Hellgate 46-44 at the Knights' gym last Saturday behind a team-leading 12 points from Karl Ingram. Flathead had a much easier time defeating the Knights at home Feb. 6 when they beat Hellgate 56-44 with the help of a 15-point effort by Tanner Salois.
Hellgate (6-14) has lost three straight since earning a 51-48 victory over Missoula Big Sky on Feb. 18.
Western AA girls playoffs
Two Western AA girls' playoff games will be contested Thursday evening.
Second-seed Missoula Sentinel (17-3) hosts Flathead (4-15), which finished seventh in the league standings, at 7 p.m.
The Spartans, who feature the league's leading scorer in senior Bryn Hasquet, swept the regular-season meetings, but were challenged in grinding out a 40-34 win at Flathead on Feb. 11.
Also at 7 p.m. Thursday, the Wolfpack girls (6-14) hit the road to take on Helena High (12-8) in a battle between the third and sixth seeds. The Bengals won both their games with Glacier, the most recent a 22-point victory Feb. 19 at home.
The Missoula Big Sky (13-7) girls will need a victory over Hellgate (6-14) at home Friday at 7 p.m. to get a shot at their third straight state championship.
Twice as nice
With Arlee's Western C divisional challenge game victory Monday, the Warriors helped break a decade-long drought for area boys' basketball teams. The last time two teams from either District 13-C or 14-C qualified for state was in 1999.
Drummond, the District 13-C champion, beat Shields Valley 50-45 in last weekend's title game at the Western C. Arlee, the District 14-C champ, fought all the way back through the losers' bracket to take third and force a challenge game with Shields Valley, which had eliminated the Warriors in a divisional challenge game the year before.
Teams from District 11/12-C, which Shields Valley is a part of, have dominated the boys' Western C divisional in recent years. It's been four years since even one team from District 13-C or 14-C qualified for state - Alberton in 2006 - and there have only been five teams total from either of those districts to make state since 1999, when Charlo and Noxon were the Western C's representatives. Neither team placed at state that year.
The last time two girls' teams from either 13-C or 14-C advanced to state was 2004, and again the schools were Charlo and Noxon.
It's no secret that one of the most heated prep rivalries in the area is between District 6-B boys' basketball foes Florence and Loyola Sacred Heart.
This year, the second-ranked Falcons (22-1) beat No. 3 Loyola twice in the regular season, again in the district tournament title game and a fourth time in a thrilling 64-62 overtime win in last Saturday's Western B divisional championship game in Pablo.
Players on the teams have plenty of history.
Just a few years back, current Florence teammates Reid Baerlocher and Brandon Lorensen were joined by Pat Jensen, Peter Shaughnessey and Andy Hollenback, who now suit up for Loyola, on an AAU squad known as the Missoula Thunder.
"I think our first tournament was when we were fourth graders playing in the fifth-grade division," said Lorensen of his AAU team that also featured current Sentinel point guard Kendal Maier and Big Sky senior guard Drew Owens. "We played together all the way up through eighth grade."
Through the thick of the season-long fight between the Falcons and Rams, Lorensen said he enjoyed competing against his former teammates. But he also likes the Flacons owning the upper hand.
"It's a lot of fun playing with and against them," he said. "We have a good, strong relationship with each other. I think the rivalry is a little less this year because we're friends. But even though we played with those guys, it's still just as much fun beating Loyola."
The teams begin play Thursday at the State B tournament in Butte. The Falcons open at 2 p.m. against Southern B third-seed Columbus, while Loyola meets Northern B No. 2 seed Shelby.
Lorensen wasn't shy about his eagerness to get back on the hardwood with a shot at a state title on the line.
"This was our goal from the very beginning, to get to state," he said. "This is what we planned for all year. Now we just want to finish this thing off the right way and win it all."
As an all-everything guard at Billings West and later as one of the most decorated players to ever play for the Montana Lady Griz, Mandy Morales was rarely on the losing end of basketball games during her playing career.
This season, the two-time Big Sky Conference MVP took her first foray into coaching and those familiar with her resume shouldn't have been surprised with her team's success. Morales took the job of guiding the Sentinel freshman girls' team and led her squad to a perfect 19-0 record.
"They definitely gave me a great year," Morales said. "That's what I want to do is pursue coaching. Of course I want to reach a higher level, but I'm working my way up. I mean you've got to start somewhere, right?"
Morales thinks her coaching style helped prepare her girls to play at their highest level and constantly improve throughout the season.
"I was really on them in practice to make sure that every time they stepped on the court they were going 100 percent," she said. "You play in the games the way you practice, so that was our mentality, to go 100 percent all the time."
Reporter Nick Lockridge contributed to this story.