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MISSOULA — Hamilton's Cariann Kunkel and Corvallis' Isabel Evans may have known of each other before the two understood the bearing of the Bitterroot Valley rivalry game they'll play for the first time Thursday evening.

Both girls transferred to their respective schools before the season — Kunkel from Hiawatha, Kansas; Evans from Whitehall.

And they can both ball. Kunkel and Evans met on the basketball court over the summer.

"I played with her at a camp this summer and them at some open gyms," Evans said of Kunkel. "She’s really versatile on the court, she can handle the ball well and she knows how to control the boards and she puts up a really good shot."

Hamilton coach Mark Albert had equally high praise for Evans, who he saw playing at one of those pickup practices.

"(Evans) came to a couple of our open gyms and it was like, ‘Oof, you’re Corvallis?’" Albert said, chuckling. "... She’s a talent and you can’t teach the height."

Oh yeah: Evans, who's a sophomore, is 6-foot-3. She put that height to good use in the first game of the regular season.

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Evans, who was an all-conference player in District 6-B as a freshman last year in Whitehall, even surprised herself with her stat line in the Blue Devils' season opening win against Loyola Sacred Heart. 

Her double-double read like this: 30 points, 21 rebounds, and Corvallis came back to win 66-53.

"I was personally shocked," she said, laughing. "I never expected I would have been able to accomplish that as a sophomore.

"I definitely have amazing teammates and some amazing coaches who know how to coach us as a team to work together, but it was definitely a huge surprise."

Evans has scored in double figures in each game since then as well, as the Blue Devils take an undefeated early season record (3-0 overall) into Thursday's rivalry game.

But the Broncs are also unbeaten (3-0), and they have a ringer all their own.

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Kunkel came on to the Class A radar in a similar big-game fashion. The senior finished with a double-double as well, helping her Broncs top Class AA Missoula Big Sky, 47-31.

"It was exciting to get back into basketball and get back into it," the courteous Kunkel said. "I'm very thankful for my great teammates; we’re a really good team, and I have really good teammates."

And talented teammates, too. Kunkel actually came off the bench in the first game to score 16 points and tally at least 15 boards.

She might not be 6-foot-3 — Kunkel is listed at 5-foot-9 — and Corvallis coach Andy Knapp certainly took notice.

"I've seen her in two out of the three games she's played in and she's a player," Knapp said of Kunkel. "There's a girl who has a very good understanding of the game, a beautiful jump shot — it's the one you'd like every kid on your team to shoot."

She's the kind of player that can take a good team — the Broncs were the No. 4 team from the West at state a season ago — and perhaps elevate it to the next level.

"We thought we'd have a nice team this year and I think Cariann makes us special," said Albert, whose team has four more seniors (not including Kunkel) on the roster. "But we have a long ways to go."

Thursday's matchup in Hamilton will be a good barometer to see just how far the Broncs have come, too. Coach Albert said Hamilton has fallen to its Ravalli County rival the last four times they've faced each other, including a loser-out contest last year at state. 

The Blue Devils won that one, 44-31, a part of a consolation bracket run that ended with a fourth-place finish.

But Corvallis graduated five seniors from that squad, including Corinne Sanderson and Emme Warnken, who were both top 20 in scoring. The Devils returned a talented core, including junior Calla Halderson (second-team all-conference).

And Evans was certainly was a shot in the arm.

"... Boy, adding (Evans) and then you still have (Halderson) and Lainie (Albright) and some good young kids, they’re solid," Hamilton's coach said.

"I was thinking ‘Hey, this might be our year,’ so I’m really glad we got Cariann," Albert added, explaining the proverbial counterpunch.

The two players and teams will get their first official look at each other at 6 p.m. Thursday.

While the rivalry may be new for Evans and Kunkel, the weight of the game between the 3-0 teams isn't lost on the Bitterroot transplants.

"I have some amazing teammates that really know how to play basketball and Hamilton’s good so it’s going to be an exciting game," Evans said.

"I’m just excited to feel the rivalry and get ready to go play."

Kyle Houghtaling can be reached by email at kyle.houghtaling@missoulian.com or on Twitter @khotel.

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