The West doesn't return any state girls’ basketball champions, but it might just have the two favorites to bring home the State A hardware come March.
Southwestern A’s Hamilton Broncs return four starters from their runner-up finish at the State A tournament last year, and they host this year’s tournament. Columbia Falls, out of the Northwestern A, also brings back four starters, and a lineup chock full of all-staters and 6-footers from its 2013-14 third-place team.
Loyola Sacred Heart should rise out of a tumultuous offseason and be a front-runner in Class B, with last year’s 6-B champion Deer Lodge graduating all five of its starters, including three college athletes.
As for the teams from District 13 and 14-C, they’ll have their work cut out for them if they are going to take back a title that has eluded them for 11 years.
With that, here is a breakdown by classification to preview just how the West will be won as the season begins in full this week.
Hamilton’s coach Mark Albert and his team know what’s at stake this season: A chance to win the state title at home.
But they don’t like to bring it up.
“We don’t talk about it much, but we all know that if we play well, we can just give ourselves an opportunity,” Albert said.
With Lady Griz recruit Taylor Goligoski and fellow first-team all-stater Jaylee Albert leading a senior-laden squad, it’s hard to picture a state-title run that wouldn’t go through the Broncs.
Which is exactly what Columbia Falls had to do -- and failed -- last year at state, falling to Hamilton in the state semifinal.
The Wildkats, though, bring back a bevy of all-conference firepower, including 5-foot-11 all-state senior Winter Kemppainen, who averaged just under 11 points per game and eight rebounds, and sophomore point guard Cydney Finberg, who was an all-stater as a freshman.
“Without a doubt, Columbia Falls… They’re going to be a challenge for anybody,” said conference rival Frenchtown coach Jim Tolman.
Tolman’s Broncs will be without MSU-Billings freshman Vanessa Stavish, who was second in league scoring at 18.2 ppg in her senior season at Frenchtown. They’ll also miss Concordia recruit Kayla Blood.
The Broncs will rely on seniors Lacey Hochhalter and Haley Cyr, both second-team all-conference players. Hochhalter showed how deadly she could be with a 31-point performance in the state tournament versus Anaconda.
Rounding out the Northwestern A, Libby returns four starters to Jim May’s Loggers’ squad. May is entering his 19th season as head coach.
Polson, which had no seniors and a first-year head coach last year, will get more experience and a couple of all-conference honorable mention players back in senior Skyla Krantz and junior Nichole Lake.
The Bulldogs of Whitefish will be looking for its youth to rise, as the team that went 1-19 last season is without a senior on its roster this year.
Dillon, which was upset by Anaconda at last year’s divisional, returns Cierra Lamey, who nearly averaged double figures a season ago. The Copperheads, in Chris Stetzner’s inaugural season as head coach, may have trouble rekindling their magic from their state appearance a season ago, as they lost their three leading scorers.
Stevensville and Corvallis, both coming off five-win seasons, will each rely heavily on senior leadership. Six-foot-2 Montana track recruit Jane Booth is athletic enough to help the Blue Devils surprise some teams, as is senior guard Carly Vercruyssen for the Yellowjackets.
In District 6-B, Loyola Sacred Heart may have the talent and the motivation to take its first state title since 2006. A trying offseason for the Breakers and coach Carrie Heaphy has turned into a rallying force for the team.
“They’re definitely going to be the cream of the crop in our conference; it’s definitely going to be a challenge for us and everybody else (to beat them),” Deer Lodge coach Kirk Walker said.
The Breakers return all-state junior Skylar Hollenback, as well as second-team all-conference selection Sami Worster. Hollenback led Loyola with 12.1 points per game for the reigning No. 2 seed from the West.
“We just expect (Hollenback) to grow as a player. She spent a ton of time in the weight room and was getting better fundamentally,” Heaphy said.
Deer Lodge, which finished 24-3 last season, lost all five of its starters to graduation, including three college athletes and Griz softball recruit Dani Walker. They’ll look to fill the holes with seven returning letter winners.
Aspen Jore tops the list for Ronan as a returning all-conference player. She and fellow seniors Kendra Starkel and Haley O’Hern will look to lift the Maidens.
Florence will be without its two leading scorers from a season ago, as Nikki Schurg, who averaged 9.8 points per game, graduated, and all-conference selection Megan Byrne, at 11.2 points per, is not on the roster. The Falcons will rely on their depth under first-year head coach Duane Zeiler.
The pool of talent in the conference makes for tough sledding at St. Ignatius, which finished without a conference win last year (0-8, 2-17).
In District 7-B, Bigfork is the early-season favorite to take the conference title with 6-1 junior Miranda Campbell providing power in the paint, but Plains might be the even better bet.
The Trotters return every starter from their 17-7 campaign, which ended with a third-place finish at the Western B divisional. Senior Hailey Phillips averaged double figures, was first-team all-state, and she’ll lead the Trotters.
Logan Beckman, who led Thompson Falls in scoring and rebounds en route to an all-state nod, will help the Bluehawks persevere in a tough conference.
Troy will look to some talented freshmen to give the team quality minutes and improve on its 2-17 record, while Eureka will look to do the same. The Lions finished 5-18 a season ago.
Both Seeley-Swan and Darby got their seasons off on the right track with wins last Saturday, and the Tigers didn’t even have to step on the court.
Darby, which returns three all-conference seniors from last year’s 15-8 squad, got a forfeit win over Philipsburg. The Prospectors didn’t have enough eligible players for the game, but were back in action on Thursday against Sheridan.
The Blackhawks of Seeley-Swan finished atop District 13-C a season ago at 21-3, and after their 60-24 victory over Alberton, behind 14 points from all-conference junior Paige Holmes, they should have continued success. The Panthers will rely on senior Taylor Erdman to recreate her night against Seeley of 14 points.
Lincoln brings back the most experience in the district, with four returning starters, while Valley Christian brings back just one: Linnea Hill, an all-conference senior guard.
Drummond lost seven seniors, including two all-state selections and a trio of double-figure scorers from their 19-6 team a season ago. Filling Frankie Bignell's and Krissy Paske’s shoes won’t be easy.
In District 14-C, Charlo was the last team to win a state championship, representing either 13-C or 14-C. That was in 2003. The Vikings are coming off a 19-6 season.
Arlee held Charlo off for the district title, though, with its perfect 12-0 conference record (16-6 overall). The Scarlets lose all-stater Whitney Malatare, but they return two starters and nine letterwinners.
Both teams will be pushed by St. Regis, which brings back a deep roster, including Gabby Moeller’s 12 rebounds per game and nine points. Two Eagle River, which returns every starter, including four seniors who will be pushed by first-year coach Erica Shelby.
Superior finished 10-11 a season ago, and returns two all-conference players. Hot Springs returns two starters in Michele Hunter’s first season as head coach.
Senior McKenna Krueger, who was out last year with an injury for the 0-20 Noxon Red Devils, should provide a post presence and help the Devils move into the land of the living in 14-C.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Northwestern A – G Cydney Finberg, so., 5-11, Columbia Falls; F Winter Kemppainen, sr., 5-11, Columbia Falls; F Lacey Hochhalter, sr., 5-7, Frenchtown.
Southwestern A – G Taylor Goligoski, sr., 5-9, Hamilton; G Jaylee Albert, sr., 5-9, Hamilton; G Corrine Sanderson, so., 5-8, Corvallis.
District 6-B – F Skylar Hollenback, jr., Loyola Sacred Heart; G Sami Worster, sr., Loyola Sacred Heart; F Aspen Jore, sr., 5-9, Ronan.
District 7-B – G Hailey Phillips, sr., Plains; F Miranda Campbell, jr., 6-1, Bigfork; G/F Logan Beckman, sr., 5-10, Thompson Falls.
District 13-C – F Paige Holmes, jr., Seeley-Swan; G Keely Ehmann, sr., Darby; G Linnea Hill, sr., Valley Christian.
District 14-C – F Gabby Moeller, sr., 5-10, St. Regis; G Pilar Field, jr., 5-7, St. Regis; G/F Violet Pablo, sr., 5-8, Arlee.