HELENA — Helena Capital High boys basketball player Garrett Kueber experienced only one Class AA Western Divisional tournament in his playing career, but already learned the playoff atmosphere is different.
Kueber recalled feeling a different energy in warm-ups before games last year.
And has come back as the team gets ready for its second-ever divisional appearance. The third-seeded Bruins take on Kalispell Flathead at 5 p.m. Thursday at Glacier High in the first round of the playoffs.
"The feeling was different, and it instantly started with warm-ups," Kueber said. "There kept being more and more people showing up, and there were a lot of people at divisionals. It is just a different energy, and we have to be ready for it."
Capital will play the winner of the Missoula Sentinal-Missoula Big Sky game in the second round of Divisionals, if they were to win and advance.
Kueber's teammate Brady Martin knows he and his teammates will have to execute a lot more crisply if they want to be one of four out of seven teams to advance on to an Class AA state championship playoff berth next week in Butte.
"The regular season is still important, but it is the postseason when you want to step it up," Martin said. "Everything has to be sound, and we can't make any mistakes. That is going to help us get to state."
Bruins coach Guy Almquist has seen a gradual improvement in his team as they headed into the most critical juncture of the season.
Capital has won four straight basketball games since Feb. 15 and only lost to top-ranked Hellgate by one point, may be the hottest team entering the divisional tournament.
"I think I've seen gradual improvement all year long (in our team)," Almquist said. "Our kids have really continued to work on some of the things we've needed to improve on, and our team's confidence continues to increase, which is a crucial time of year."
The Bruins raised eyebrows when they outscored Hellgate 22-2 in a second-half stretch in their second meeting, narrowly missing pulling off what would have been considered the biggest upset of the season in Class AA.
"They have a clear understanding when we are playing we can compete with anyone," Almquist said. "We've proved that numerous times. Our team has done the things they are capable of doing. They've gained insight to their abilities, gotten better and better and just continue to work at it."
The Bruins have had different players elevate their game this season, and Almquist has constantly seen several players end up scoring in double figures.
The Bruins will play Flathead, a team they defeated 69-36 on Feb. 15. If they win, they will play the winner of Sentinel-Big Sky. Capital lost to Sentinel 47-37 in their Feb. 7 meeting, but as Almquist points out, his Bruins are a different team now.
"What happens before divisionals really has no bearing on what happens in this tournament," Almquist said. "Teams improve and there are wrinkles added by coaches. It's a new set of circumstances, and it's exciting because everyone is fighting for the same spot, at the same place, on the same day. It is a great spot for our team to be in and we are just excited to get there."