Bergin Luker

Helena High's Bergin Luker drives the ball against Helena Capital in the crosstown boys basketball game last Saturday at the Bears Den. 

The Class AA state basketball playoffs start this week for Helena High and Capital and throughout the state, it will be a blast from the past in terms of the format.

Instead of holding a divisional tournament as Class AA has done the past couple of years, the classification has returned to the play-in game format, meaning every Class AA team will have a single-elimination game this week to reach the combined state tournaments next week in Great Falls.

Missoula Hellgate played Tuesday night and the defending co-champions in boys basketball lost as the No. 2 seed to seventh-seeded Glacier, showing that anything can happen in a one-game scenario. 

On the girls side of things, Capital (13-1), which is ranked No. 1 in the 406mtsports.com, is actually the No. 2 seed in the Western AA after losing a coin flip to Missoula Hellgate (13-1) on Sunday. The two teams split during the regular season and shared the Western AA regular-season championship.

For the Bruins, that means a home matchup against seventh-seeded Kalispell Flathead (Thursday at 7 p.m.) against a team they swept. 

"It's a little different than what we're used to," Capital head coach Katie Garcin-Forba said. "We had gotten used to playing divisionals. It's a little more nerve-racking I think, but we just need to be ready to go." 

Capital, the defending co-champions in Class AA, is led by its core group of seniors which includes all-state performers Dani and Paige Bartsch, who are each among the leading scorers and rebounders in Class AA. The twins are also the top two rebounders in program history. On the opposing side, Clare Converse is the leading scorer for the Bravettes (2-12). 

Prior to the Capital girls game on Thursday, the Bruin boys team will play Missoula Big Sky (6-8) at the Bears Den (5 p.m.).

CHS split with the Eagles during the regular season but lost the last matchup, which also happened to be at home. However, the third-seeded Bruins (8-6) come in riding the momentum of a four-game winning streak.

Brayden Koch leads the way for Capital and is one of Class AA's most electrifying scorers, however, the Bruins are at their best when others such as Hayden Opitz, Trysten Mooney and Tyler Tenney are knocking down shots too. Opitz, a sophomore, is fresh off a 14-point showing in a crosstown win last Saturday over Helena High. 

Big Sky will be led by Kade Olson, who averaged over 12 points and seven rebounds during the regular season for the Eagles. 

The Bengal boys will be the first Helena team to take part in the Class AA playoffs as they are the only Helena team playing Wednesday night (6 p.m.). 

That contest will be in Missoula as Helena (0-14) will look to get its first win of the year by upsetting top-ranked Sentinel (13-1), which beat the Bengals last week at the Jungle in Helena. 

The Spartans are coming off their first loss, as they were upset by Butte last Saturday. MSU basketball signee Alex Germer is the star player for the Spartans, but he struggled to score against the Bengals thanks to Bergin Luker, Sam Norum and a stout effort by Helena High.

"We were hoping to have some momentum going into it," Helena High boys head coach Brandon Day said. "But with Sentinel losing to Butte, it shows they can be beaten and hopefully, the boys will come ready to play."

Beating Sentinel, on the road, with a state tournament berth on the line, will be tough, but Kaden Huot has been shooting the ball well for the Bengals and it is March after all, so you never know.

Seniors like Norum, Luker, Evan Barber and Austin Zeiler will also try to extend their high school careers with a win. 

The Helena girls also face quite the challenge as they will head to Kalispell Glacier looking to end a five-game losing streak to the Wolfpack.

Glacier (8-6) swept the Bengals during the season and boast an experienced lineup that features Emma Anderson, Kenzie Williams and Ellie Keller.

Helena (6-7), on the other hand, is led by seniors Kylie Lantz, Brooke Ark and Liz Heuiser, while underclassmen such as Avery Kraft and Alex Bullock have emerged as bigger scoring threats recently.

The Wolfpack advanced to the Class AA state tournament last year, while the Bengals hope to get back after missing out last year. Tip-off time between the Wolfpack and Bengals is set for 5 p.m., in Kalispell.

Chris is the sports editor and lead preps reporter for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmpetey406

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