Beavers primed for another title

By Derek Hendrickson

The Class A state tournament begins Thursday morning in Great Falls with a mix of the usual suspects seeking deep runs and additional hardware to their school’s trophy cases as well as teams who no one expected to make it through the divisional round and hope to continue their recent streak of upsets. Tournament bracket

Let’s start with the ones everyone expected to be here.

Laurel is the top ranked team in Class A, according to the final regular season poll. The Locomotives have run off 16 straight wins, 14 in the regular season and two at the Eastern A divisional this past weekend in Billings.

Laurel cruised to an undefeated conference record and won handily over Sidney in the semifinals before needing a 10 point fourth quarter rally to knock of Miles City 39-38 in the championship.  The win put them on the same side of the bracket as the defending champions from Stevensville as well as perennial powerhouse Columbia Falls.

Laurel’s two losses came early in the season, first to Butte Central during the tip off tournament, and then on the road against class B Columbus, who the Locomotives later beat.  Laurel was a huge favorite to win state last year in Billings after having an undefeated regular season.  They suffered their first loss to Billings Central in the divisional championship and then fell against Stevensville in the state semifinals by three points.

The Locomotives made it back to the consolation final where they lost to Columbia Falls 48-46.  Laurel most recently was the Class A state champion in 2010, when the Locomotives beat Polson, 60-48.

Dillon returned to the state finals after a rare year off last season. It took a triple-overtime effort by Butte Central to keep the Beavers out of state last year and they were clearly a team on a mission to return this season, mowing through the majority of their schedule on the way to a 16-2 record that saw them hold the No. 1 poll ranking for all but the final week.

During that final week the Beavers lost their only game at the hands of a Class A opponent when Stevensville rallied from down 14 to start the fourth in Dillon to upset the Beavers on senior parent night.  This loss was quickly avenged this past weekend in the Southwestern divisional final, when Dillon won easily, 55-34.

Dillon has won several state championships recently, beating Columbia Falls two years ago 54-39 and also in 2009, 54-50.  They also won in 2007 and 1999 with runner up finishes in 2011 and 1997.

Columbia Falls took home the Northwestern divisional championship for the sixth straight year with a 51-37 win over Whitefish on Sunday as the tournament was delayed due to the weather conditions in the area.  The Wildcats are hot at the right time, winning their past 7 games, all by at least 14 points.  Their last loss was to class B powerhouse Bigfork, who swept both games with Columbia Falls this season.

The Wildcats 16-4 overall record only has two other blemishes, one against class AA Flathead, who the Wildcats beat once, and also against Frenchtown, who many expected to be the other representative from the Northwest, but were upset by Whitefish and then lost to Polson in the third place game.  Columbia Falls is no stranger to the state finals, winning titles in 2003, 2005, 2006 and most recently in 2011 when the beat Dillon 55-43.  They were the runner-up in 2009 and 2012, both losses to Dillon.

Belgrade was the class of the Central all season, only dropping a single conference tilt against Browning on the road.  The competition stiffened at divisonals, but the Panthers were able to win close games against both Lewistown and Havre to qualify for the state tournament.  Belgrade has a 15-6 record on the season, with all its losses coming against Class AA schools or quality class A opponents, including Butte High, Bozeman and Butte Central twice and to Browning.  Many of these same players saw time in last year’s state finals, where the Panthers lost a first round game to the Maroons. 39-34, before beating Frenchtown and then getting eliminated by Laurel.  They are the clear favorites against Polson in their first round match-up, which will likely lead to a semifinal battle against Dillon.

Stevensville picked the right time to beat Butte Central this season, getting payback for two earlier losses to the Maroons in the Southwestern A semifinals, winning 52-48 in double overtime. Their 12-9 record is a bit misleading as the defending champions saw the MVP of last year’s state tournament, Jesse Sims, transfer and had to reinvent the roles of their key players.

The Yellowjackets entered divisionals on a hot streak, winning 6 of 7 with their only loss coming at defending AA champion Missoula Hellgate.

The Yellowjackets pulled off a stunner by winning in Dillon late in the season after trailing big most of the game and proved that they can compete with anyone. During the finals rematch with the Beavers, Stevensville seemed to tire after winning an emotional game the night before against the Maroons, a win that ended up punching their ticket to the state tournament.

The Yellowjackets are no strangers to playing big games at state, winning highly contested battles last year vs. Browning 65-64 and Laurel 52-49 before easily handling Billings Central for the championship.  They were the second-place team at state in the three years from 1999-2001.  They get a rematch from last season’s semifinal with Laurel to open the state tournament on Thursday afternoon in what could be the best game of the first round.

These three teams were definitely not picked to make it to the state finals, but have earned their spots with some inspired play when it mattered the most.

Havre was definitely a long shot to make the tournament after losing 8 of 9 entering divsionals. Their first round opponent at the Central divisional was Browning, which had crushed the Blue Ponies 78-57 only six days prior.  Browning is one of the teams that typically makes it to state and fully planned on it with a 16-5 record.  One of the other recent Havre losses was to Class B Rocky Boy, which hung up 101 points against Havre.

Somehow the Blue Ponies recovered to beat the Indians 64-61 in Belgrade to advance to the championship where they lost to Belgrade 50-41. This marks Havre’s first trip to state since the 2005-2006 season, and they last won the Class A title in 1994 when they beat Billings Central 61-60. The Blue Ponies enter the tournament with a 7-13 record.  Havre faces a tough test the Blue Ponies meet Columbia Falls in the opening round and if they somehow pull an upset there would likely face Laurel.

Miles City was 5-13 during the regular season and then nearly pulled a stunning three game sweep at the Eastern divisional this past weekend. They beat Billings Central in the opening round by seven, a team they had recently won a close game against but had been routed 75-50 earlier in the season against.

In the semifinals, the Cowboys got some payback against a Glendive team that was ranked in the top 5 poll all season long and finished with a 14-6 ledger.  The Devils had beat them twice, including the week prior to the semifinal contest, but the Cowboys pulled off a 44-41 upset that set up the epic comeback Laurel required to keep Miles City from winning the Eastern championship.

The Cowboys matched their conference win total of two at the divisional tournament and look to keep up their overachieving when they take their 7-14 record against Dillon in the opening round Thursday evening.

Polson won two games at the Northwestern Divisional against Libby, in the opening round and again in the consolation final. The Pirates then beat Whitefish (13-10) in a challenge game on Monday to advance to the state tournament. In the challenge game Polson shot 73 percent behind the arc, including eight second half-triples to pull away for a 59-47 upset win.  Much like Miles City, Polson was 5-13 entering divisionals, but won 3 of 4 to enter state with an 8-14 record.

The Pirates season got off to a disastrous start with a 74-30 drubbing against Dillon and included several other 30 point blowout losses to local AA schools Flathead and Glacier as well as to Libby.  Polson did have a mid season home victory against Stevensville, 64-48, showing it is capable of playing against quality teams.

Columbia Falls handled the Pirates easily all three times they matched up, with a 62-48 Northwestern semifinal win included.  Polson will face Belgrade in the first round and will hope their hot shooting continues.  The most recently won the state championship in 1993 over Belgrade and finished second to Laurel in 2010 when they also entered the tournament with a losing record.

The four division champions all won their respective regular season and tournament titles this year. I don’t see any reason why they won’t all win first round games at state, with the only match-up that could be difficult would be the opening game with Stevensville and Laurel.

Should Jared Schultz put on one of his top games and if the refs let them play the Yellowjackets could pull off a low scoring upset win. Belgrade, Dillon and Columbia Falls should all win easily.

The Beavers possibly dodged a bullet when Laurel came back to beat Miles City as that would have put the two top ranked teams on the same side of the bracket. Instead a semifinal match-up with Belgrade is likely in store for the Beavers.

Butte Central won both games vs. the Panthers and Dillon took care of business against the Maroons twice. Dillon should have no problems here.

Columbia Falls vs. Laurel could well be the game of the tournament.  Both have wins over AA schools and are riding win streaks into the game as well as the two-point consolation game final from last year’s state tournament, all pointing to a tough game.  Laurel got a scare from Miles City, while Columbia Falls coasted through their tournament.  I think Laurel will squeak out a close game but it certainly could go either way.

That sets up a Dillon vs. Laurel championship, the top two ranked teams all season.  Dillon was more or less unchallenged other than the game against Stevensville, which could serve as a big wake up call.  Laurel had a close call of their own vs. Miles City.  Both teams are excellently coached and bring a wealth of experience on this stage.

In a very biased call I think Troy Scott and his improving support cast are just too much for the Locomotives and helps bring Dillon both the football and basketball championships for the second time in three years, winning a close game by five.

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