Class A girls basketball
2019-20 Co-champions: Billings Central and Hardin
• Can Billings Central win its first outright state title since 2012? If the returnees from the Rams' co-championship are any indication, they have to be considered the preseason favorite. Start with junior Mya Hansen, the sole returning all-state selection from the Southeastern A. Hansen averaged a team-high 17.1 points per game as a sophomore on a team that finished 20-2; she is the state's leading returning scorer. Hansen will have plenty of help from junior Solei Elletson, who was second-team all-conference after averaging 12.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and senior Isabelle Erickson, who also was second-team all-conference after averaging 7.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Honorable-mention all-conference player Maria Stewart also returns. The Rams did suffer a big loss in all-stater Olivia Moten-Schell (12.6/8.2).
• Imagine the exasperation for Hardin, which went 21-2 and was at long last ready to celebrate a solo state title after finishing runner-up the previous three seasons to Havre (twice) and Columbia Falls. The Bulldogs figure to be in the mix for their first solo state crown since 1994 despite losing leading scorer and rebounder Marie Five (17.9/9.5) to graduation, along with fellow all-staters Sossity Spotted Wolf and Ivery Fritzler. Hardin's fortunes will revolve around junior Kamber Good Luck (9.8 ppg/3.4 rpg), a second-team all-conference player, and Nevaeh Alden (12.5/3.9), who was honorable-mention all-conference.
• Longtime state power Havre must learn to adjust to life after Kyndall Keller, whose bid to become a three-time state champion was derailed by Billings Central in the semifinals of a 21-3 season. Keller, the Gatorade Player of the Year after leading the state in scoring (20.2 ppg), is now with the Montana Lady Griz, but the cupboard isn't bare on the Hi-Line even with the losses of second-team all-Northeastern A standouts Jessa Chvilicek and Katie Wirtzberger. First-team all-state honoree Sadie Filius (9.2 ppg/5.4 rpg) is back for her junior year, along with second-team all-leaguer Loy Waid (6.5/4.8) and Kylie Walker (4.8/1.9), both seniors.
• Hanging out on the periphery last year were Browning (19-5) and Columbia Falls (16-4), which finished 1-2 in the Northwestern A — with the Indians handing the Wildkats their only two league defeats and keeping a strong team out of the state tournament. Browning loses its leading scorers in all-stater and co-Northwestern A MVP Dulci Skunkcap and first-team all-conference standout Tamika Guardipee, but the Indians still figure to be potent with the return of second-team all-conference stars Chalissa Kipp (5.3 ppg/2.6 rpg) and Walker Running Crane (5.7/2.4), both seniors, and honorable-mention pick Tatum Running Crane (6.7/6.8), also a senior. Columbia Falls said goodbye to Northwestern A co-MVP Josie Windauer (11.4 ppg), who now plays soccer at Montana, but welcomes back senior LaKia Hill (9.65), who was all-state, along with junior Maddie Robison (12.1) and senior Hannah Schweikert (13.4), both of whom were second-team all-conference.
• Dillon (16-8) snuck away with the Southwestern A before falling to Billings Central in the state quarterfinals. The Beavers lose leading scorer Josey Jones but return leading rebounder Ainsley Shipman (8.9 ppg/8.7 rpg), who was first-team all-conference as a sophomore. The conference favorite just might be youthful Hamilton (14-9), which was led in scoring last season by freshman Taryn Searle (11.1), who earned all-state honors, and fellow freshman Laynee Kearns (8.8), who was second-team all-conference. The Broncs also boast senior Maggie Ringer (4.6/8.1), who was second-team all-conference, and Katelyn Dickamore (7.2/5.6), who was honorable mention. Also figuring to be in the mix is Corvallis (16-8), which loses all-stater Isabel Evans (11.6/9.2) but returns fellow all-stater Madeline Gilder (10.1/6.0).
Other names to keep an eye on this winter: Junior Sofee Thatcher of Butte Central, Livingston senior Kodie Vondra, Ronan senior Jaylea Lunceford, Whitefish junior Jadi Walburn, Glendive senior Jillian Litwiller, Lewistown senior Kylie Zimmer and Laurel senior Maeson Cotter.
One big number
4: Consecutive years Hardin has advanced to the state championship game without coming away with a solo title. The Bulldogs finished runner-up to Havre in 2018 and 2019 and were second to Columbia Falls in 2017 before having to share with Billings Central at the pandemic-halted 2020 state tournament.