HELENA -- The Western AA girls divisional basketball tournament, which is being held in Capital High's Bears' Den Thursday through Saturday, figures to be a dog-fight between the top three or four teams. The tourney features schools with five state championships in the last six years, including Missoula Sentinel (2012-14), Capital High (2015) and last year's titlist Helena High.
Missoula Sentinel (15-3 overall) and Helena High (16-2) tied for the regular season's top spot with identical 10-2 records in conference play. The two teams split their season meetings, but Sentinel garnered the tiebreaker (and the title) by winning both games against third-place Capital, while Helena split their crosstown meetings with the Bruins.
No. 3 Capital (15-3) went 8-3 in the conference, and fourth-place Glacier High (11-7) finished at 6-6, including a win over the Spartans.
"It should be an exciting tournament and it is great for the community of Helena to be able to host the first Divisional in many years," said CHS coach Bill Pilgeram. "We are very fortunate to be hosting and want to take advantage of the opportunity."
Thursday's opener takes place between Kalispell high schools Glacier and No. 5 Flathead (5-13, 4-8) at 5 p.m.. The 6:30 p.m. contest will feature Helena versus No. 7 Missoula Hellgate (3-15, 1-11), followed by a matchup between Capital and No. 6 Big Sky (3-15, 2-10) at 8 p.m. Sentinel receives a bye into Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinals tilt, against the winner of the Kalispell schools' game.
The top four placers qualify for the State AA Tournament in Billings, March 8-10.
Sentinel is outscoring its opposition by an average of 58-39. Their leading scorers are Jordyn Schweyen, a 5-foot-11 senior at 12.4 points per game (No. 4 in the state), Kylie Frohlich with a 10.6-points average, and 6-1 sophomore post Lexi Deden at 10.2 ppg. Frohlich, a 5-11 senior forward, is the Spartans' top rebounder at 7.5 boards a game, ranks No. 2 in the state with 56 steals and is third in the AA at 3.6 assists per contest.
"We are very focused right now, especially on the little things," related coach Karen Deden, whose Spartans lost to Helena in the 2017 state AA championship game. "As a team we are excited to play in divisional and ready for the challenges ahead. We need to focus on what we do and our game plan and do the little things every time down the court."
Helena holds a 53-35 scoring advantage over its opponents. In their season finale, the Bengals scored 34 points in the opening quarter (which might be some kind of record) in a 76-31 win over Big Sky.
Jamie Pickens, a 6-2 junior post, ranks first and second in the state in rebounding and scoring, at 12.8 boards and 15.3 points. Next in the scoring column are senior guard Kamden Hilborn with a 10.2 average, Paige Aasved at 5.9 ppg, and McKayla Kloker and Emily Feller at 4.7 ppg each. Hilborn, a 5-7 guard, leads the state with 5.2 assists a game and 86 steals.
“The girls are playing loose and with confidence at the right time,” HHS coach Eric Peterson said. “We feel good about it. We feel we can play with anybody."
Capital is outscoring its opposition by an average of 49-34, led by Taylor Sullivan and Sydney Sheridan, at 9.7 and 9.3 points, respectively. Sullivan, a 6-3 senior post, paces the team with 6.6 rebounds a game, and ranks No. 2 in the state with 49 blocked shots. Sheridan, a 5-8 junior guard, leads CHS with 2.8 assists per game, and is tied for third in the state (with Pickens) with 49 steals.
The rest of the club's top scorers are Kacie Gross with 8.5 points, Megan Lindbo at 6.1 ppg, and Emily Kidder's 4.6 average. Katie Culver pulls down 6.5 boards a game.
"Our girls are going into Divisionals with a very confident, trusting mindset. At this point we need to trust our teammates, trust the time we've put in, and trust the growth that we've seen throughout this season," coach Pilgeram said. "In a tournament setting like this, we have to be prepared to play a variety of teams and be ready for any situation.
"In order to be successful, we have three general goals: dominate on defense and limit the easy points, win the battle of rebounds, and be hard to guard by executing on offense."
Glacier holds a narrow 41-39 scoring margin over its counterparts. The Wolfpack, under coach Bill Sullivan, is paced by 5-10 senior Anna Schrade at 9.0 points and Kali Gulick with 8.3 ppg. Their top rebounders are 6-0 senior Alivia Atlee and Aubrey Rademacher, with 4.8 and 4.7 boards a game, respectively. Cadie Williams is the assist-leader and No. 2 in the state at 3.6 passes per game.
Flathead is being outscored by an average of 44-32 a game. Their offensive leaders include Clara Vandenbosch, who is scoring 11.2 points per game, and Mary Heaton at 7.2 points. Vandenbosch, a 5-5 senior guard, is No. 2 in the state with 33 3-point field goals. Bravettes' coach Tricia Dean's top hoopster under the glass is 6-0 junior post Taylor Henley, with a 6.4 rebounds average.
Missoula Big Sky
Big Sky, coached by Michaela Anderson and led by Sydney Zanto and Julie Riekena -- who average 9.9 and 9.0 points per game -- is being outscored 57-41. Riekena, a 5-9 senior forward, is the Eagles' top rebounder at 8.9 boards a game, third-best in the state. Coach Anderson said her girls "just have to keep playing hard," and that anything can happen (at divisionals).
Hellgate has averaged 31 points, compared to 46 for its opponents. The Knights top scorers are Kylie Lunday at 9.7 ppg and Shay Evan with a 7.8 mark. Lunday is the state's No. 2 rebounder with an average of 9.1 boards a game. Hellgate coach Rob Henthorn said his cagers "have improved," but they need to put the ball in the basket more.
The divisional championship will be decided at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at Capital High.