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Prep notebook

The epicenter of Montana high school sports in 2002-2003?

An estimated 250 feet off the shore of Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake.

No fewer than 14 state team championships were claimed by teams within a 50-mile radius of that point, from Whitefish on the north (three titles, three second places) to Charlo, home of the 2003 state Class C girls' basketball champions.

Teams from the Flathead Valley were especially ravenous. Kalispell, the largest school in the state, gobbled the most titles of anyone - five. Two came on Oct. 19 from Paul Jorgenson's cross-country teams. Two more came last Saturday, from Dan Hodge's boys' track team and Gene Boyle's softball club. The fifth was in girls' swimming on Feb. 1.

Whitefish enjoyed a banner year for rookie athletic director, Megan Olson. The Bulldog boys won the state A soccer and track titles, the girls captured first in volleyball.

Bigfork girls won a cross-country crown. Columbia Falls boys captured a boys' basketball championship. Polson was first in girls' track and second in girls' cross country and soccer, and in wrestling.

In all, schools within range of the "epicenter" finished either first or second 25 times at the state level.

Polson senior Kiel Duckworth provided bookends for the prep year. In October he took off mittens to sink a six-foot putt and win a state A golf championship in Shelby that was battered by rain, sleet and snow. The putt came on the second extra hole on the third day (Sunday) of a two-round tournament.

Because the Class A golf season was moved to fall this year, it opened up the spring for Duckworth to play tennis. He was Polson's No. 1 singles player and finished third in the state tournament last weekend in Lewistown. Duckworth's only loss was a 7-5, 7-6 (7-1) setback in the quarterfinals to Havre's Kyle Baltrusch, who didn't drop a set in winning the title.

It was 81 degrees and sunny Lewistown on Saturday.

Kalispell's Becky O'Neil was preparing to go for her second individual title of the Class AA track meet in Helena on Saturday when she had a sickening realization: She'd left her throwing shoes on the team bus. Worse, the bus was locked. Worse yet, she didn't know where it was.

Parking near Vigilante Stadium is such that a bus driver may have to park half a dozen blocks away in any direction.

"I was like, uh-oh, maybe I'm not supposed to throw discus," said O'Neil, who won the shot put championship the day before.

Her discus flight was set to start when she finally came up with the shoes.

"You tend to be a little tight" when stuff like that happens, she said.

Yet O'Neil was pleased with her throw of 120 feet among three preliminary tries, and she went into the finals in second place. By then the last race had been run on the track, and just about everybody affiliated with Kalispell track moved under the north bleachers to watch the discus finals on an adjacent lawn.

As it happened, the Bravettes were within 13 points of Bozeman for their second straight team title. A first place is worth 10 points, second eight, third six, then four, two and one. To catch Bozeman, Kalispell needed a first from O'Neil and a fourth from sophomore Kelly McCready.

With the crowd making noise, O'Neil had her best throw of the day, and nearly of her life, in her last act as a prep athlete. It sailed 132 feet, 8 inches - more than 11 feet farther than the best of the previous leader, Stephanie Morrison of Helena.

"I threw my farthest at the very end, and it was probably mostly because I had my entire team cheering me on," said the Weber State basketball recruit. "I think that's what made it happen. Our whole track team is awesome at supporting each other."

McCready also had her best throw at the end, moving from eighth to sixth place. But the Bravettes fell two points short of the title.

Thompson Falls throwers Karen Helvey and Stephanie Bortz threw together for the last time in Helena. Bortz took second in shot put and third in discus, just behind Wolf Point's Teddi Anderson in both cases. Helvey was fourth in shot, then beat everybody in discus on Saturday with a throw of 134-4.

Helvey said she couldn't have done it without Bortz.

"I'm glad she's on my team, because we push each other a lot," she said. "We've made it made each better. And we're really good friends. There's a lot of competition but we're good friends."

They're bound to see each other next track season, however. Helvey has signed to throw for Montana State. Bortz, as well as Anderson, are going to UM.

Frenchtown's Class B-C softball run didn't end the way the Broncs hoped, but their third-place finish over the weekend didn't tarnish their legacy.

The Broncs, who will move to Class A next season, won five state titles during the first eight years of the B-C division. The Broncs finished with a 171-31 record during their B-C run. Mark McMurray guided the club the entire time and says he plans to return next year.

"We've been real fortunate over the years to have good coaches, good kids and supportive parents,'' McMurray said. "It's easier to be successful when you have that kind of support group. Everyone keeps telling me 'good job' and I just keep telling them I didn't do much. I just hired good assistant coaches and stayed out of the way, which is true. The kids have always been great and the whole community has been supportive of us.''

Frenchtown is slated to join the Central A conference next season. Ronan will move from Central A to Western A.

Despite the Broncs' success, coaches like Florence's Otto Thill and Loyola's Dan Weber are sad to see Frenchtown leave.

"Every one of the teams is now playing a better brand of softball,'' Weber said. "In all honesty, a lot of that is due to Frenchtown. They were the standard bearer. They set the bar over everyone's head. I'm going to be sad to see them leave. They have elevated the level of everyone's play, including our own. We'll miss them.''

The Broncs have played several Class A teams over the years with good results. McMurray said the time is right for the team to make the move, especially since the junior varsity teams is coming off a 17-0 campaign.

"I think we're ready to go,'' he said. "We graduate five or six seniors so next year we're going to be young. I'm sure we're going to have our trials and tribulations, but it's time. That's where we belong."

Florence starting pitcher Kolbi Beneitone couldn't pitch the eighth and ninth innings of the Falcons' 6-3 win over Frenchtown on Saturday because she had reached her limit of 14 innings per day.

Next year, that will change. Pitchers will be allowed to pitch two complete games in a day. Florence proposed the rule change following last year's state tournament.

"Realistically it should be unlimited innings like it is everywhere else in the country,'' Thill said. "Next week, the day school gets out, a 10-and-under pitcher will go and pitch three complete games or five complete games in a day. There is no preponderance of evidence of arm injuries.''

If Montana didn't have a rule limiting the amount of innings a pitcher can throw, Florence might have at least one more state title. In 2002, starter Cassie Phillips ran out of innings the last day and Frenchtown won the state crown.

Thill doesn't think the MHSA will ever allow unlimited innings.

"We're in the dark ages,'' Thill said.

Jon Kasper contributed to this story.

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