By George Ferguson
Maybe it is because the last three months have been a blur. Maybe I have just seen to many bouncy, orange things they call basketballs. Or it could be the ridiculous amount of time I spent in front of a computer screen doing school work and writing stories. Whatever the reason, it has taken me until the first week of March to realize something I should have realized all winter.
There was simply some of the best high school basketball being played in North-Central Montana this past season - specifically in that nice little area we refer to as the Hi-Line.
It is true that only the Harlem Wildcats are left standing, but I am not sure that people realize how much quality hoops has been played in the area this year.
Take the boys season in District 9C for example. Many area coaches agree that there has not been a more competitive regular season in recent memory.
Box Elder claimed the regular season title and was ranked as high as eighth in the Class C power poll during the season. The Blue Sky Eagles stayed right on the Bears heels most of the way. But when it came down to tournament time, the KG KouGars and Big Sandy Pioneers surprised no one by capturing first and second in the 9C tourney in Havre. The tournament itself was a showcase for these four quality teams and do not forget that Hays-Lodge Pole and Turner were also plus .500 teams when they entered the tournament as well.
When all seven teams got to the Havre High gymnasium, they not only put on a show, but they served notice that the 9C was probably the toughest conference from top to bottom in all of Class C.
Every game was a battle and perhaps the best game of the tournament was played for pride when Box Elder and Blue Sky went down to the last shot on Saturday night in the consolation game.
Don't forget about the individuals talent either. The District 9C tournament was saturated with young talent including the likes of Casey Crites of KG, Gage Brumwell and Jay Jamieson of Big Sandy, Jon Lipp of Blue Sky and Marcus Standing Rock and Neal Rosette of Box Elder. But they are just a few of the quality players that made this year's 9C tourney and regular season a hi-light on the Hi-Line.
Even on the girls side of things, the Box Elder Bears came within one game of qualifying for the Class C state tournament. A heartbreaking loss to the Big Sandy Pioneers in the Northern C divisional tournament championship game kept the Bears for earning an automatic berth into the big dance.
For two straight weeks in February, the Bears gave the vaunted Pioneers all they could handle in championship basketball. As for Big Sandy, it was business as usual, with 26 wins and one loss and three more trophies added to an already overflowing case in the halls of Big Sandy High School.
While we're on the subject of Class C basketball, it might be easy to overlook the Chester Coyotes. They were upset by Heart Butte in the semifinals of the District 10C tournament. But now, the Warriors are Northern C divisional champs and a top seed at this week's Class C state tournament in Billings. Despite losing in districts, there was some good basketball being played in Chester under the direction of head coach Willie Schlepp. With players like Adam Stubbs and Travis VanDyke, the Coyotes beat Heart Butte twice during the regular season and could have very easily been the team representing the 10C at state.
If you're still not convinced that the area was a hoops haven this past season, then look no further then the capital of the Hi-Line. Not only did the Havre Blue Ponies boys basketball team overachieve in the eyes of many - nearly tripling its win total from a season ago - the Ponies captured the Central A regular season title for the first time in a great while.
Nearly every time the Ponies stepped on the floor, they gave us a show that was unforgettable. Whether it be an early season win over Harlem, or a dominating performance over the big, bad Great Falls High Bison, the Ponies left it all on the floor in 2003.
Even though the year ended in bitter disappointment for Havre at the divisional tournament, there are still plenty of positives. Cory Brothers is only a junior and will be back for another season. When you talk about raw basketball talent, this kid is oozing with it. Sure he has some work to do, but with his knack for getting to the basket, his leaping ability and jump shot, he may be considered the best player in the state of Montana regardless of classification come 2004.
And all of that brings me right back to where I started. In recent times, the most successful Hi-Line basketball program is not in Havre and it is not in Kremlin. It's in Harlem.
The Wildcats are playing in their third consecutive Class B state tournament. They are the defending state champions and boast a roster full of magnificent basketball players.
During the 2003 campaign, Harlem reeled off 19 consecutive wins before being beaten by Cut Bank last weekend. While everyone familiar with Montana high school hoops is putting their money on Cut Bank to win the state championship, I recall last year when every body was putting their money on another bunch of Wolves that resided down Highway 2 East - the Wolf Point Wolves. Harlem walked away with the title. And it could happen again this year. It is like Harlem point guard Colby Fetter said after their loss on Saturday night, the state championship still belongs to them and teams are going to have take it away, because the Wildcats certainly won't give it up without a fight.
It's just too bad that more people didn't get to see what I saw this past year in Havre and in the surrounding area - a lot of quality basketball and a lot of quality basketball players.
It may have made me a little biased, but the hottest hoops being played in Montana were right here in a little place called the Hi-Line.