HELENA — Capturing back-to-back Class AA Montana High School girls basketball championships is twice as nice, but gunning for a third consecutive title will be three times as difficult for Helena High without star player Kamden Hilborn.
Bengals coach Eric Peterson said replacing Hilborn is simple —"You don't."
Hilborn, who is one of the most accomplished athletes in Bengals history and now slated to play basketball at Montana State, was the key component behind the back-to-back state titles. However, she had plenty of help that is set to return this season.
Fortunately, Helena won't need star power in their attempt to three-peat.
The Bengals still have Jamie Pickens, who signed with Montana for the 2019-2020 season. Pickens, a 6-foot-2 forward, will be the team's undisputed centerpiece headed into the season.
A motivating factor for the Bengals is that third consecutive state title. The last team to achieve a three-peat was Missoula Sentinel, which won them from 2011-2014.
"Trying to win a third-consecutive state championship is something that fuels the fire," Pickens said. "It is nice to think about, but it doesn't mean anything. We lost one great player (Hilborn) and (with) a third consecutive state title in the back of our head, we have to focus on us still."
Trying to fill the vacancy left by Hilborn is a task Pickens said has motivated the team.
"She was a great player and made lots of plays with us," Pickens said. "The younger girls on the team are going to fill their roles and work on team chemistry. "
This year's roster consists of 16 players, and will be guard heavy. Helena will have a rotation of 11 guards with three six-foot forward, including Pickens, 6-1 Caroline Bullock and forward 6-1 McKenzie Plummer.
To fill the shoes of the vacancy left by Hilborn, the Bengals focused on enhancing skills and building team unity during the summer.
"We went to a lot of camps this summer," guard Abby Marcille said. "We went to Gonzaga, the University of Montana and a couple in town. We focused on filling the shoes of Kamden because we are going to miss her. However, I think we will be pretty good this year."
Marcille said focusing on team chemistry is one way to offset the considerable vacancy left by all-state player.
"We are just trying to keep our team chemistry," Marcille said. "Our peak needs to be in March, and we need to continue to grow throughout the season."
Marcille expressed confidence in her team's growth over the summer.
"I think we are pretty steady this year, and our team does well together," Marcille said. "We still need to work on our execution, take it one game at a time and continue to go hard in practice."
Guard Payton Aasved is confident in her team's ability to excel without Hilborn.
"We just learned to play without her," Aasved said. "We have learned to step up and fill our roles. I think we practiced and made sure we worked hard in every drill. We will continue to work as hard as we can going into the season."
Spending time together at camps in Missoula and Spokane, Washington, paid dividends, according to Pickens.
"We work together all of the time to try to get to know each other," Pickens said. "That is the biggest key to success is spending a lot of time together, especially over the summer."
Pickens has been around coach Peterson long enough to trust in him and his staff, who have the championship credentials to back up of what they speak about.
"You have to pace yourself during the season," Pickens said. "You can't be playing your best game in February. Coach Peterson knows what he is doing and we trust him on that."
A dream come true
Pickens had multiple NCAA Division I schools interested in signing her to play college basketball for the start of the 2019-2020 season. Yet Pickens had her sights set on one team: the University of Montana.
Pickens, who officially inked her letter to Montana earlier this month, said signing with the Lady Griz was a "dream come true."
"It was (a dream come true) to get to play college basketball in my favorite town where my family is," Pickens said. "The team there is great, and coach Shannon Schweyen is great. I am really excited."
Pickens, who also generated interest from Gonzaga, said the atmosphere made her decision easy.
"To be able to play in a gym with great teammates and a great coaching staff sold me," Pickens said.
Pickens will now have the rest of the season to focus on helping the Bengals try to capture their third consecutive AA MHSA state championship.
"We know there are going to be some great teams this season," Pickens said. "We are going to go out and have fun, and just try to be competitive with the other teams."