The Columbia Falls Wildkats basketball team will be looking to fill some key positions early this season as they begin the defense of their first state title since 1983.
With the loss of five seniors from last season’s Class A state championship team (four of them starters), the Wildkats will be looking to returning starter, and 2017 All-State selection, Dani Douglas to lead the squad with help from fellow 2018 seniors Hannah Gedlaman and juniors Ryley Kehr and Trista Cowan.
“Even though we lost a lot of talented players, I think we will be a little deeper overall this year. We have a lot girls that just like to get after it and play scrappy defense and we are going to use our depth and tenacity to disrupt our opponents,” head coach Cary Finberg said. “Any time you have a state championship team and you lose four starters, and five seniors overall, those players are going to be hard to replace. That being said, this group of girls that we have coming back practiced against that group every day and they know what it took for that team to win a championship. It’s going to be a challenge, but, hopefully, we have some kids that will be up for that challenge.”
The Wildkats are coming off a 2016-17 campaign that saw them go 23-1 en route to a state title. Over the course of the season, Columbia Falls averaged nearly 65 points per contest while holding opponents to just under 37 points per game.
Led by senior All-State selections Peyton Kehr, Kiara Burlage, Sydney Hovde and Cydney Finberg, the Wildkats outscored their opponents by a combined 60 points in three games at the state tournament last season. This year, coach Finberg says the team will have to spend some time finding its new identity as the season begins.
“We were big last year and we could run. Last year’s team was a special group that only comes along at a school once every 30 or 40 years. When you lose kids like that, you don’t replace them. At the same time, we have new kids coming in this year that are scrappy and are hungry to prove that they are up to the challenge,” Finberg said. “We will have an adjustment period to begin this season, no doubt. Of 25 kids in the program this year, 18 of them are freshman and sophomores. We are obviously going to be a lot younger, but our talent level is still very high. It will just be a matter of gaining some experience.”
The Wildkats will begin gaining that experience Saturday as they open the season on the road at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell. Junior varsity tip-off is set for noon with the varsity girls playing at 3:15 p.m.
The season continues Dec. 8 and 9 as the Wildkats travel to Missoula to take on Dillon and Frenchtown in the in the Tip-Off Tournament.
The 2018 conference tournament will be in Ronan Feb. 15-17, with divisionals in Butte Feb. 22-24. The state tournament will be in Great Falls March 8-10.
While this year’s team will be quite different from a season ago, coach Finberg says the goal remains the same.
“We are not going to be as long and we are not going to be as experienced as last year’s squad, but we have a group that knows what it is going to take and how to get there,” he said. “You always want to improve during the season and be better in March than you were in November, and that is no different this season. We will just be starting at a different point this season than we did a year ago.”