By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre High head girls basketball coach Jason Wirt knows what it is like to take a Class A team into a hostile Class AA environment. While at Ronan, Wirt was faced with the daunting task of taking his Maiden teams to a very good Missoula Sentinel High School.
Tonight, Wirt and his Havre Blue Ponies will foray into the CMR Fieldhouse to challenge the vaunted CMR Lady Rustlers in an interclass nonconference showdown at 7:30 p.m. in Great Falls.
While the Rustlers (4-0) graduated two top collegiate prospects in Joslin Swartz and Erin Goodman last year, they are still among the elite girls basketball programs in Class AA this season, and Wirt knows that tonight's contest will be a huge test for his team.
"They are a very good team and they will be quicker than any team we will face this season," Wirt said. "They will pressure us the entire game. We won't see pressure like this from any other team this season.
"How we do in this game will all come down to handling that pressure," he added. "We are averaging right around 17 turnovers a game, so if we can keep it around that number or better than that, we will be fine."
Indeed, the Rustlers are a much more guard-oriented team this season. With the 6-1 Swartz and 6-2 Goodman departed, CMR has become more of a transition-based team.
The Rustlers possess perhaps one of the premier athletes in all of Class AA in junior Shantell Marquis. Marquis has started every game since she has been at CMR, and is one of the leading scorers on a very balanced CMR team.
Sophomore Kelsey Hopkins is the top post player for the Rustlers and is coming off of a 19-point performance against Helena High. CMR also returns starting point guard Shelbi Danelson as well as shooting guard Quincy Carter and forward Cassie Homlund. Typically, the Rustlers will go 10 or 11 deep this season under veteran head coach Kerry Parsons.
"CMR has a lot of very quick and athletic players," Wirt said. "They will look to get a lot from us through their transition game. They want to get up and down the floor and score off transition baskets and will look to get a lot of points off of their defensive pressure."
While CMR will look to speed the Ponies way up, Havre will have to be very patient offensively, it will wants to avoid letting tonight's game get away from them, much like it did five days ago when Great Falls High ran away from the Ponies in Havre.
The Ponies will need to get good offensive production from the likes of junior Steph Flatau and senior Whitney Barnekoff.
The duo combine to lead the Ponies in scoring and Flatau is coming off a 15-rebound night against Browning. Sharpshooter Justine Erhard will also be looked upon to shoulder some of the scoring load.
Handling the CMR full-court pressure will fall to veteran point guard Amy McLain, who has seen the Lady Rustlers at their very best over the course of the last two seasons and is well equipped to shoulder that responsibility tonight.
Aside from scoring enough points to keep up with the Rustlers' high-octane offense, Wirt still insists that the main factor in tonight's game will be whether or not the Ponies can withstand the relentless pressure that CMR will apply. Win or lose, he said that handling that pressure is the main objective for tonight's contest.
"I want for us to show that we can handle their pressure," Wirt said. "This team will be very similar to what we will face when we play Lewistown. Win or lose, I want us to come out of this with the confidence and the understanding that we can play against a quality team. If we do that against CMR, it should give us a lot of confidence for games toward the end of the season."
Tonight's game between the Ponies (3-2) and the Lady Rustlers will tip off at the 7:30 at the CMR Fieldhouse in Great Falls.