Western Montana understood too well the agony of defeat last year. Boys' basketball teams in the area are hoping to balance that with some thrilling victory this winter.

An area team finished in the medals at all four state tournaments in 2015-16, though none could find that last step to a championship. The road back to the title game is foggy in 2016-17 thanks to waves of graduation, but don't count out Polson (Class A), Bigfork (B) and Arlee (C).

All three lost at least three starters after finishing third or better at state -- both Arlee and Bigfork were runners-up -- but have some promising pieces for a bounce-back campaign.

"They've been to three state tournaments and we'd hate not to make it a fourth for 'em," Polson head coach Randy Kelley said of his crop of five seniors.

***

Class C

On the heels of back-to-back trips to the State C semifinals or beyond, Arlee may be top heavy with all-state guards Tyler Tanner, a senior, and Phillip Malatare, a junior, back for another go. Their leadership will be essential, fourth-year head coach Zanen Pitts said, because of the general inexperience flanking them.

Five seniors graduated from the group that fell to Box Elder in last year's championship. This year's group will have four more seniors with a talented corps of juniors and sophomores who still need some molding.

"That's the big thing that those boys have been talking about to the young guys," Pitts said. "Just let the game come to them. Take what it gives you and don't push it or force it."

The Warriors will have a cast of strong District 14-C contenders to get through before even a trip to the Western C Divisional comes into play. Plains, Charlo and Hot Springs are all young but aren't ready to bow down to the two-time defending district champs.

Plains may have the most scoring power with a pair of returning all-conference guards and three starters back in all. Look for seniors Ryan Ovitt, Alec Cole and Aaren Vonheeder to be difference makers for the Horsemen, though with none taller than 6 feet, 2 inches, a team with an inside presence could give them trouble.

It'll be up to all-stater Trevor Paro to lead Hot Springs after a graduation exodus, and the same goes for Charlo and junior all-conference wing Tyson Petticrew.

Valley Christian made a deep divisional run from District 13-C last year but only one starter is back (6-5 sophomore Zach Baugher) with no true post presence as well.

"That said, we have strong physical players who can still rebound and score inside," first-year coach Neil DeGroot said.

Seeley-Swan is a popular preseason pick among the league's coaches because of the skill of outside shooters like Brad Miller and Cameron Haines. The Blackhawks have the benefit of a deep bench.

***

Class B

Among the trophy winners from last year, Bigfork may be the hardest hit by turnover. Just four lettermen are back, led by a single returning starter. And Anders Epperly was only a freshman in 2015-16, albeit a talented one.

"He will have to find a way to change his role from an exclusive ball handler to a leading scorer," Vikings coach Sam Tudor said of his point guard.

Bigfork has played in the State B title game in two of the past three years, losing to Choteau there last March. In between Loyola Sacred Heart reached the championship and third-year coach Eddie Stack's boys have the potential to again be playing on the season's final weekend. It'll take some good bounces and the team's depth developing in a timely manner.

Behind all-stater Parker Davis and David Koppang, there's plenty more capable but raw shooters.

"We'll play about 10 kids so every kid on that roster you'll see on almost a nightly basis," Stack said.

Libby's crop of seven seniors, led by 6-7 post Erik Lauer and complemented by sophomore Ryggs Johnston, should have the Loggers in the conversation as well in Western B. Ronan and its three returning starters could also make some noise.

Florence was a state qualifier last year but has a new head coach (Caleb DeGroot) with just one returning starter in junior Marcus Zeiler. 

***

Class A

Dillon's place in the state title bout is nearly reserved with the Beavers reaching the ultimate contest seven times since 2007. With all-staters Tanner Haverfield and Troy Andersen still in the fold, this season could play out much the same.

Southwest A power Dillon topped the Northwest's Polson twice in exceptionally close games last year -- they play again Friday during the Northwest-Southwest Tip Off Tournament in Missoula -- and the Pirates are still looking to put their name in the same state conversation. It'll be up to seniors Tanner Wilson and Matthew Rensvold to help get them there.

"Coach (Kelley) always has them ready to play and is great at getting his best players the ball where they need it to score," said Frenchtown coach Mark Quinn, whose team will be chasing Polson.

Frenchtown has its own two-pack punch in 6-8 all-stater Austin Means and his senior classmate guard Jacob Price.

Back down in the Southwest, Hamilton is coming off its first state trip since 1993 and has nine returners in all from that team. Carter Kearns is the top one, a 6-4 all-state junior, though he has plenty of company.

***


Prep boys' basketball capsules

NORTHWEST A

COLUMBIA FALLS WILDCATS

Head coach: Chris Finberg, first year with Columbia Falls.

Last year's record: 4-17

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: G Logan Stephens, sr., 5-11; PG Dakota Bridwell, sr., 6-0.

***

FRENCHTOWN BRONCS

Head coach: Mark Quinn (Montana Tech, 1997), 3-17 in second year with Frenchtown and overall.

Last year's record: 3-17

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: F Austin Means*, sr., 6-8; G Jacob Price, sr., 6-0.

***

POLSON PIRATES

Head coach: Randy Kelley (Western Montana, 1994), 29-19 in third year with Polson, and ninth year overall.

Last year's record: 19-6

Postseason: Third at state

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: P Matthew Rensvold*, sr., 6-4; G Tanner Wilson, sr., 6-2; F Jeremiah North Piegan, sr., 6-4.

***

WHITEFISH BULLDOGS

Head coach: Sean Duff (Montana State, 2003), first year with Whitefish and fifth overall.

Last year's record: 7-14

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Derek Kastella*, sr., 6-1; F Sawyer Silliker, sr., 6-4.

*returning all-state

***

SOUTHWEST A

BUTTE CENTRAL MAROONS

Head coach: Brodie Kelly

Last year's record: 13-11

Postseason: State qualifier

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: F Nate McGree*, sr.; G Tanner Kump, sr.

***

CORVALLIS BLUE DEVILS

Head coach: Peter O'Neil (Montana, 2013), 8-14 in second year with  Corvallis and overall.

Last year's record: 8-14

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Tylor Nixon, sr., 6-0; F Justin Catanach, sr., 6-3.

***

DILLON BEAVERS

Head coach: Terry Thomas (Montana, 1981), 216-34 in 12th year with Dillon.

Last year's record: 22-2

Postseason: State champion

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: F Tanner Haverfield*, sr., 6-4; G Troy Andersen*, sr., 6-4.

***

HAMILTON BRONCS

Head coach: Travis Blome (UM-Western, 2007), 19-27 in third year with Hamilton and ovearll.

Last year's record: 12-12

Postseason: State qualifier

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: Carter Kearns*, jr., 6-4; Hunter Omlid, so., 6-2; Ky Burch, sr., 6-0.

***

STEVENSVILLE YELLOWJACKETS

Head coach: Tony Anderson (Blue Mountain Junior College, 2009), first year with Stevensville.

Last year's record: 5-15

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: G James Fry, sr., 6-4; F Jared Kingsbury, sr., 6-4; F Dalton Bragg, jr., 6-5.

*returning all-state

***

DISTRICT 6-B

ANACONDA COPPERHEADS

Head coach: Bill Hill (MSU-Billings), 26-58 in fifth year with Anaconda

Last year's record: 14-8

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Braxton Hill*, jr.; F Trent Mikalatos, jr., 6-6; F Bobby Swainston, jr., 6-2.

***

DEER LODGE WARDENS

Head coach: Dakota Norris (UM-Western, 2014), 9-16 in 2nd year with Deer Lodge and overall.

Last year's record: 9-16

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 5

Players to watch: PG Cade Benjamin, sr., 6-0; F Brandon Porter, sr., 6-4.

***

FLORENCE FALCONS

Head coach: Caleb DeGroot, first year with Florence.

Last year's record: 22-4

Postseason: State qualifier

Returning starters: 1

Players to watch: G Marcus Zeiler, jr., 6-0; F Cody Liles, sr., 6-2.

***

LOYOLA SACRED HEART RAMS

Head coach: Eddie Stack (Rocky Mountain College), 40-14 in third year with Loyola. 

Last year's record: 17-11

Postseason: State qualifier

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: F Parker Davis*, sr., 6-2; G David Koppang, jr., 6-0;PG Jack Burns, sr., 5-8.

***

RONAN CHIEFS

Head coach: Mitchell Wassam (UM-Western, 2015), first season with Ronan.

Last year's record: 7-13

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: G Ezekiel Misa, jr., 6-0; F Aaron Misa, sr., 6-2.

***

ST. IGNATIUS BULLDOGS

Head coach: Gus McDonald (UM-Western), first year with St. Ignatius.

Last year's record: 2-18

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 0

Players to watch: P Beedo Matt, sr., 6-4; F Elijah Cahoon, sr., 6-2.

*returning all-state

***

DISTRICT 7-B

BIGFORK VIKINGS

Head coach: Sam Tudor (MSU-Northern, 2004), 46-6 in third year with Bigfork and overall.

Last year's record: 24-2

Postseason: Second at state

Returning starters: 1

Players to watch: PG Anders Epperly, so., 5-10; C Beau Santisteven, jr., 6-6; F Logan Taylor, jr., 6-1.

***

EUREKA LIONS

Head coach: Seth Braach, first year at Eureka.

Last year's record: 0-19

Postseason: none

Returning starters: n/a

Players to watch: Jaime Good, sr.; Brad Stein, sr.

***

LIBBY LOGGERS

Head coach: Josh Bean (Montana, 2005), 15-28 in third year with Libby and overall.

Last year's record: 13-10

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Ryggs Johnston, so., 6-2; P Erik Lauer, sr., 6-7.

***

THOMPSON FALLS BLUEHAWKS

Head coach: Jake Mickelson (UM-Western, 2001), 27-20 in third year with Thompson Falls

Last year's record: 12-12

Postseason: Fourth at divisionals

Returning starters: 0

Players to watch: F McKenzie Holt, sr., 6-5; PG Dylan Beckman, jr., 6-2.

***

TROY TROJANS

Head coach: Jerry Mee (UM-Western, 1984), 12-30 in third year with Troy and ninth overall.

Last year's record: 7-16

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Mason Chapel, sr., 5-9; G Zach Cotten, jr., 5-11.

*returning all-state

***

DISTRICT 12-C

DRUMMOND TROJANS

Head coach: Jay Allen (Jamestown, 2006), first year with Drummond.

Last year's record: 8-14

Postseason: Lost district third-place game

Returning starters: n/a

Players to watch: P Leroy Davis, jr.; G Spencer Parke, jr.

***

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PHILIPSBURG PROSPECTORS

Head coach: Dustin Keltner (UM-Western, 1998), 42-24 in fourth year with Philipsburg and 17th overall.

Last year's record: 12-9

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Colton Grange, jr., 5-11; F Tristan Linn, sr., 6-2.

***

DISTRICT 13-C

CLARK FORK MOUNTAIN CATS

Head coach: Erik Johnson (Montana, 2006), 10-30 in second year with Clark Fork/Alberton and third overall

Last year's record: 10-10

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Nick Turnbull, sr., 5-10; G Taryn Ververis, sr., 5-7.

***

DARBY TIGERS

Head coach: Sean Bryers (Montana, 2012), first year with Darby.

Last year's record: 7-16

Postseason: Lost divisional play-in game

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: G Zach McCrossin*, sr., 6-2; F John Beckers, sr., 5-10; G Zack Kline, sr., 5-9.

***

LINCOLN LYNX

Head coach: Shane Brown (Montana State, 2000), 17th year at Lincoln and overall.

Last year's record: 6-15

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 5

Players to watch: Gage Fitzgerald, sr., 5-9; Logan Fuit, sr., 6-2.

***

SEELEY-SWAN BLACKHAWKS

Head coach: Michael Haines (UM-Western, 1986), 103-120 in seventh year with Seeley-Swan and ninth overall.

Last year's record: 10-14

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Cameron Haines, jr., 6-0; G Brad Miller, sr., 5-11.

***

VALLEY CHRISTIAN EAGLES

Head coach: Neil DeGrott (Montana, 2005), first year with Valley Christian.

Last year's record: 23-2

Postseason: Third at divisionals

Returning starters: 1

Players to watch: F Zach Baugher*, so., 6-5; F Brad Klein, sr., 6-3.

***

VICTOR PIRATES

Head coach: Richard Gulman (Montana, 2010), first year with Victor.

Last year's record: 8-12

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: F Jayce Allred, sr., 5-10; F Colt Neville, sr., 6-0.

*returning all-state

***

DISTRICT 14-C

ARLEE WARRIORS

Head coach: Zanen Pitts (UM-Western, 2011), 64-14

Last year's record: 24-2

Postseason: Second at state

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: G Tyler Tanner*, sr., 5-11; PG Phillip Malatare*, jr., 6-0; F Colt Brazill, sr., 5-10.

***

CHARLO VIKINGS

Head coach: Gale Decker (Montana, 1972), 23-22 in third year with Charlo and 193-187 in 21st overall.

Last year's record: 12-10

Postseason: Lost district third-place game

Returning starters: 1

Players to watch: F Tyson Petticrew, jr., 5-8; F Zane Haflinger, sr., 5-10.

***

HOT SPRINGS SAVAGE HEAT

Head coach: Ricky DePoe, 70-46 in sixth year with Hot Springs and overall.

Last year's record: 18-8

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 1

Players to watch: G Trevo Paro*, sr., 5-9; F Blaine Carr, sr., 6-0.

***

NOXON RED DEVILS

Head coach: Bart Haflich (Montana, 2006), 7-13 in second year with Noxon.

Last year's record: 7-13

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 2

Players to watch: P Quincy Grupenhoff, sr., 6-6; F Aaron Brodmerkle, sr,. 6-3.

***

PLAINS HORSEMEN

Head coach: Mike Cole (Montana State, 1992), 97-60 in sixth year with Plains and eigth overall.

Last year's record: 15-8

Postseason: Divisional qualifier

Returning starters: 3

Players to watch: G Ryan Ovitt*, sr., 6-2; G Alec Cole, sr., 5-10; G Aaren Vonheeder, sr., 6-0.

***

ST. REGIS TIGERS

Head coach: Jesse Allan (Great Falls, 2008), first year with St. Regis.

Last year's record: 2-16

Postseason: none

Returning starters: 4

Players to watch: F Trevor Lowry, sr., 6-0; C Eric Eslick, jr., 6-2.

*returning all-state

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