2015-16 Tip-Off: Basketball Season Preview

first_img Email Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. COLUMBIA FALLS — Growing up in a poor family and raised by a single mother, John Anderson learned to earn everything the hard way. A disciplined work ethic paid off, especially on the basketball court and in the classroom, and Anderson went on to play college basketball at Division III Beloit College and later earned a law school degree that carved out a successful career for the Wisconsin native.Now Anderson is bringing his workmanlike philosophy to the Columbia Falls boys basketball team, which is under a new head coach for the first time in 20 years.Anderson, who lives and works in Whitefish, finds himself across the valley in Columbia Falls as the new head coach trying to rebuild a program that lost its beloved former leader as well as a ton of experience and talent on the court. Not only did Columbia Falls graduate four starters from last year, it lost its starting center, Grant Wallace, after the towering senior-to-be transferred in the offseason.Cary Finberg stepped down in the offseason after 19 seasons that included five Class A championships and seven consecutive top-three finishes at the state tournament from 2009-2015. He left with a career record of 298-138 as the boys head coach. Finberg remains the head coach of the girls basketball team.“The community has been great. There have been zero issues,” Anderson said.“I’m just trying to do the right thing by these boys. People will want to make comparisons but that really has no bearing on what we’re going to do on the court.”The Wildcats, who finished 20-4 and in third place at the state tournament a year ago, are off to a tough start at 0-3. But Anderson said this season will be all about development and finding a new identity.“I’ve told the boys they have to earn everything. It’s Columbia Falls. Everybody is gunning for us. Nobody is going to give us anything,” he said.In the offseason, Anderson met with Finberg to discuss the Class A landscape and for scouting reports on opposing teams. He said Finberg has been very helpful.Anderson will look to new players to step up and carry on the Columbia Falls tradition, including Tyler Murphy, Glenn Morden and Nathan Riley.“Some of these guys will step up as leaders and that’s what it’s going to take,” Anderson said.Class AWatch out for the Polson Pirates, a team that has all the makings of a state title contender.Head coach Randy Kelley has a lineup loaded with talent and experience from top to bottom. Matthew Rensvold, a 6-foot-4 junior forward, leads a crew of four returning starters and a few all-conference players, including 6-2 junior guard Tanner Wilson and 5-10 senior guard Payton Lefthand.A state tournament qualifier a year ago that finished 10-13 overall, the Pirates are poised to take a big step this season. Adding to the team’s excitement is a new addition from California. Julian Jones is a 6-2 guard who transferred from Northern California, where he was named honorable mention all-metro last year. Jones already appears to be emerging as one of the top players in Class A.The Pirates narrowly lost to last year’s state runner-up Dillon last weekend at the Tip-Off Tournament, 56-54. Jones scored 16 and Rensvold had 27.This year’s postseason is set up differently than years’ past. The Northwestern and Southwestern A conferences have combined into the Western A Division. The new division will include Northwestern A’s Columbia Falls, Frenchtown, Polson and Whitefish and Southwestern A’s Dillon, Butte Central, Corvallis, Hamilton and Stevensville.In basketball, each of the four conferences previously hosted a divisional tournament that sent two teams to the state tournament. Under the new setup, there will be two divisional tournaments — the Western A and Eastern A divisionals — and four teams from each event will qualify for state, regardless of their conference.With younger squads lacking varsity experience, both Columbia Falls and Whitefish could be playing catch up. The Bulldogs graduated both all-conference players from last year and started two freshmen recently.Dillon, a perennial state contender, has finished second the past two seasons and could very well vie for another championship this year. Last year Laurel edged Dillon 61-52 in the title game. The Beavers lost five starters but have a history of reloading under longtime head coach Terry Thomas. Butte Central, with Cole Harper and Tanner Kump, is also poised to be a tough challenge down the stretch.On the girls side, Columbia Falls still has Cary Finberg and still has a state contender. The Wildkats (3-0) return several key players from last year’s third-place squad, including four all-conference players: 5-11 junior forward Cydney Finberg; 5-9 senior guard Sydney Grilley; 6-0 junior forward Kiara Burlage; and 5-6 senior guard Ellie Johnson.Last year’s team steamrolled opponents, averaging 64 points per game and limiting opposing teams to 32 ppg. After a surprising 49-47 loss in the opening round of the state tournament, Columbia Falls rallied back to win three games in a row to claim third place. The girls finished 22-2 overall.Hamilton claimed the Class A state trophy, defeating Butte Central 58-46. Hamilton lost all five starters and Dillon (1-1) and Butte Central (2-0) appear in line to vie for the top spot in the Southwest. Corvallis (2-1) also returns four starters.In the Northwest, Whitefish and Polson will have to take down Columbia Falls and Frenchtown, the two top teams in this corner of the state. Ben Johnson is the new head coach in Whitefish, replacing Clint Peters. Johnson guided the Gardiner Bruins to the Class C girls state championship last March. Johnson coached at Gardiner High School since 2012. The Bruins were 62-18 under him.Polson also has a new head coach, Joe Quinn. A native of Butte, Quinn has been teaching high school science in Polson the past eight years and also coached high school football and middle school basketball. He spent the past two seasons as an assistant for the Lady Pirates basketball team.Class AAWith a returning all-state guard and honorable mention forward, the Glacier girls hope to bring home another trophy from this year’s state tournament.The Wolfpack returns eight players with varsity experience, including four-year starting point guard Hailee Bennett, who was all-state a year ago and signed to play at Seattle Pacific University next year. Last year’s squad was the first at Glacier to bring home hardware from the girls state tournament and the team finished with the program’s best overall record, 20-5. Sixth-year head coach Kris Salonen will look to her daughter, Taylor, and Nikki Krueger to help Bennett lead the Wolfpack back to the state tournament.Helena Capital, the defending state champion, will be the team to beat again this year. Helena High also boasts a talented lineup.Flathead has two returning starters, including one of the best players in the state, junior Tiana Johnson, who averaged 10.5 points per game and 6 rebounds as a sophomore. Kelsey Gillespie, a 5-7 junior guard, will try and help the Bravettes rebuild into a postseason team, along with Kylee Meredith and Cadelyn Nunn.On the boys side, Flathead’s new head coach Ross Gustafson is quickly trying to organize a team with talent but lacking in experience. Senior guard Matt Marshall is the Braves’ only returning starter. A year ago he averaged 11.3 points and 3.6 assists per game for the Braves, who finished the season 4-17. Gustafson will be without sophomore Tyler Johnson, who injured his ankle before the season started and is out for an indefinite amount of time.Glacier is also playing without one of the school’s best athletes, Jaxen Hashley, a junior all-state player who injured his knee during football season and is out for the year. Head coach Mark Harkins will try to rebuild a lineup that lost seven seniors to graduation and now Hashley, the team’s best player. Harkins will look for new players to step up, including junior Taden Gilman and Noah Lindsay. Glacier finished 11-10 a year ago and just missed out on the postseason.The Western AA conference appears wide open now that Missoula Hellgate has graduated its top talent, including Tres Tinkle. Missoula Sentinel returns four starters and both Helena teams appear loaded and ready to vie for the postseason.Billings Skyview defeated Billings West to win last year’s championship, 62-56.Class BBoth the Bigfork boys and girls teams are strong contenders for the postseason. The Vikings have four big seniors as well as experienced starters Jon Landon and Adam Jordt back on the court. The Vikes rolled through the regular season last year with a 19-1 record and captured yet another District 7B title. At the Class B state tournament, Bigfork fell just shy of the title game, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion, Choteau.The Valkyries return several key players, including seniors Lana Berg, Mattison McAnally and Miranda Campbell.  Last year’s team went 19-6 and won the Western B Divisional tournament before bowing out at state. Look for the Vals to make another trip to the postseason that could end with well-earned hardware.Libby is also in the Class B mix now. The Lady Loggers graduated all starters from a year ago, and longtime head coach Jim May will try to find a new group of players to step up to the challenge. The Loggers have similar inexperience but could see big gains thanks to Jonny Cielak and Erik Lauer.The Thompson Falls boys also present a good lineup that could make a postseason run.last_img read more