HELENA — Vanessa Walsh knows what it takes to win a state championship because she's already been a part of two of them with the Helena High girls basketball team.
Walsh knows winning one title is daunting, but the Bengals are going for the third one in a row.
They have experienced some turbulence on the way there, yet they responded and have overcome adversity.
"It takes a lot of hard work, dedication and practices to win a championship," Walsh said. "Our team realizes that hard work in the gym pays off in the end with the first two championships our team has won. I am sure our mental state is ready to go perform at our highest level (entering this tournament)."
Helena, ranked No. 1 most of the season, reclaimed the top spot at the end of the regular season after knocking off rival Capital for the second consecutive time this season. Then it experienced vulnerability of tournament basketball when they fell to Missoula Hellgate in the semifinal round of the AA Western Divisionals 54-50.
The Bengals responded with back-to-back victories in the consolation bracket steamrolling Flathead 63-34 and defeating Glacier 47-40 to capture third place. They open up the state tournament against Butte at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Butte Civic Center.
"I wouldn't say we needed the loss to Hellgate," Walsh said. "However, they exploited some of the weaknesses that our team needed to fine-tune."
Coach Eric Peterson knows tournament basketball doesn't reflect the complexion of the regular season. Where you're seeded is irrelevant, and in his long-standing career, he has plenty of reference of this phenomenon.
"This is an exciting time of the year because everyone has seen a lot of film on one another and the teams that are going to state are generally playing their best basketball of the year," Peterson said. "Preparation is a key component going into the state tournament because everyone is looking for that one edge that will separate themselves apart from everyone else. It is a lot of sleepless nights, but I think it is important to not overthink things too much by over coaching. We have to remember what has gotten us this far and not stray too far from the norm in creating a game plan."
Peterson felt his team executed well in the four-point loss to the Knights, and he accepted the blame as his team continues their preparation for Ally Cleverly and the No. 2 seeded Butte out of the east.
During the season-opening game Dec. 12, the Bengals handed the Bulldogs a convincing 43-29 loss. So they know they will have to shut down Carroll College-bound Cleverely.
"Coach (Maury) Cook and company has done a fantastic job this season," Peterson said. "They have come a long way since we played them in the first game of the season and they are playing confident right now. They have quick, aggressive players who are very disciplined."
The Bengals are headed into the game as one of the favorites to emerge out of the bracket in the championship game.
"The Divisional loss was not something we planned on and for whatever reason, we played poorly on the defensive side of the ball," Peterson said. "One take away that we had was that even though we have experience, it is still up to me to get the girls ready to play. I felt like I didn’t do my job as well as I should have in that game, and the girls suffered from it. Also, I was very proud of how our girls responded to the loss. We got back up the next day, earned two more wins and ended the tournament on a high note."
Peterson and his team are doing something aside from just playing for themselves. They are looking to represent their community.
"Our girls are excited for the opportunity to represent our school and community this weekend at the state tournament by playing for each other on the biggest of stages," Peterson said. "There has been a lot of external talk about being able to three-peat, but our girls stay focused on the first game and the first game only. They know they cannot play on Saturday night without first winning on Thursday and Friday nights. If they are lucky enough to be the last ones standing on Saturday night, then they will have achieved something that is hard to accomplish."
Capital point guard Sydney Sheridan and her team got an additional boost of confidence by capturing the Western AA Divisional title Saturday night at Kalispell Glacier.
Though Sheridan realizes the seeding is only a number, it certainly helps them as they prepare for the No. 4 Great Falls team at 8 p.m. Thursday night at the Butte Civic Center.
"I think being the number one seed at state doesn't really matter," Sheridan said.
In their early season match up with Great Falls, Capital defeated the Bison handily 44-21. If the Bruins, whose only regular-season losses have been to Helena, and the Bengals both win their opening round games, they will play each other in the semifinal game at 8 p.m. Friday night at the Butte Civic Center.
While many would consider a third crosstown showdown to the be a real championship in the Western Class AA tournament, Bruins coach Katie Garcin-Forba isn't about to look past her current opponent headed into the tournament.
"We've seen Helena and Butte, and we might happen to see one of those teams again (in the semifinals)," Garcin-Forba said. "Our girls and team prepare for all different scenarios in the tournament, and we don't want to overlook anyone because of rankings or seeding."
Sheridan expressed the possibility of getting a third shot at Helena, a team that swept the Bruins during the regular season.
"We want to focus on Great Falls," Sheridan said. "It would be a really fun experience to play Helena High on a neutral court, even though we were really hoping to play them for the championship game. I guess we will have to wait for our time, and it'll come for sure."
Garcin-Forba hasn't understated the team's ability to capture the No. 1 seed headed into the tournament, though she knows in a tournament format anything can and will happen.
"I think the girls have played with a ton of confidence over the weekend, and we knew going into the Divisional championship game against Hellgate, the girls were capable of beating the top teams in this tournament," Garcin-Forba said. "We had to control the game, make adjustments and really give them a lot of different looks defensively and offensively."